It’s a homicidal holiday, and only Travis Whitaker can crack the case…
Chapter 3: Snow Blind
I tried to keep it together. The bludgeoning death of Cape May City Council member James Rappaport had just taken an unexpected turn. The grieving widow, it turns out, had been participating in some sexual extracurriculars, and I was on the syllabus.
The Janice Rappaport who stood before me in all her Amazonian glory (pushing 50, she could easily have filled out any Wonder Woman costume, and look 30 while doing it) was the woman I’d encountered as Carol Brown several weeks earlier while drowning my sorrows – a pharmaceutical rep in town and looking for some free and easy companionship, which I had proved all too eager to offer.
I had been able to push it out of my mind as the one-off moment of weakness of a drunk guy pining for his distant girlfriend and filling the void with the closest warm body. But now, with Janice/Carol standing before me, it all came rushing back, the guilt and nausea. The worst part was; I knew, at some point, I would have to tell Daryl, my newspaper reporter girlfriend, about the whole sordid mess. No doubt the news would get to Philly, no doubt she would be involved in some capacity, and no doubt she’d see it on my face the moment she looked at me.
That was something to look forward to.
But for the moment, my goal was to make it out of the room holding the dead body and the woman I’d schtupped without passing out or barfing up my hazelnut Wawa coffee.
Thankfully, perhaps sensing my distress, Janice cinched her silky robe closer, gave me a brief, quizzical look, and said, “If I might… I’d like to freshen up. There’s coffee in the kitchen. I’ll be down in, say, 20 minutes?”
Tim said, “That will be fine. We’re very sorry for your loss.”
Again she looked me in the eye, searching for a moment, then, “Thank you. It’s… nice to have met you both.”
Tim turned to leave, hooked me with an arm and brought me with him.
“The hell was that?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “Let’s talk to the cops.”
So we did. In ten minutes, over some fresh, exotic coffee, we rehashed everything we thought we knew in the previous ten minutes: killer enters/exits through hole in back of the chimney, in between he whacks Rappaport. Nothing stolen, nothing missing, despite the obvious worth of some of the interior antiquities. Money was not the motive. This was a crime of passion.
A call came over Officer Shawn Austin’s radio; Lionel Jeffries, the mason contracted to repair the Rappaport’s crumbling chimney, was in custody at police HQ, so they left. Detective Curtis, 50ish, raincoated, lean and hungry, lingered.
He said to us, “Now boys, I’m prepared to give you as much leeway as you need. But please do not mistake my kindness for weakness. The moment I sense you’re gumming up the works I’ll shut you out colder and tighter than my wife’s vagina. Am I clear?”
We nodded. I could somehow taste his metaphor. He left. Tim and I poured ourselves another cup of Joe. I sensed a hint of cinnamon. Real cowboy, I am.
Finally, Janice emerged looking more put together in a pair of jeans and dark sweater.
She stepped into the kitchen, “Thank you for waiting. I just needed a moment. I loved my husband very much.”
I broke out in a sweat, a combination of the now stuffy forced air heat, the hot coffee, and the beautiful woman I’d conjugated with putting on her little show.
“We don’t want to rush Mrs.… Ms Rappaport,” I said through a sticky throat, “but we have other interviews to conduct. So if we could get right to it.”
Was that too harsh? It felt too harsh.
She replied. “I understand. I’ll tell you what I told Detective Curtis; I got home around midnight from a council meeting…”
“Midnight?” I interjected.
She replied, “A few of us had dinner and cocktails. We ate at the Merion Inn, then to the Brown Room for drinks.” She put her gaze on me, “You know the Brown Room, don’t you, Mr Whitaker?”
I swallowed, my throat clicked. “I’ve been… a few times… please go on.”
“That’s it. I went upstairs to talk to James; he wasn’t feeling particularly well so he had retired early. And I found him… like that.”
At that moment the medical examiner’s team bumped their gurney down the steps with James Rappaport’s remains in a black bag. I tried not to imagine his crushed head bouncing around inside it. Failed. A stiff, chilling breeze shot through the kitchen as they made their way out the front door. Tim looked down the hallway after them, I looked at Janice, Janice looked at the floor.
The door was pulled shut and Janice went on. “I called the police, waited until a decent hour, then called you. And here we are.”
“Here we are,” I echoed.
Tim asked, “Did you have anything with you, Mrs… Ms Rappaport?”
“Please,” she snapped, “call me Janice.”
Tim nodded gravely. “Did you have anything with you, Janice?”
“Just my laptop,” she answered. “I take extensive notes at our meetings. I always have it with me.”
“Okay,” Tim announced. “That’ll do for now. We’ll be in touch shortly.”
She said, “If I could just have a word with Mr Whitaker. In private.”
Tim raised an eyebrow but did not object. “Sure. I’ll be in the car. Freezing.”
He gave us a quick glance, bundled up his coat, and left. When he was gone she approached me aggressively.
“What are you playing at?”
“Me? What about you?”
“What do you mean what about me?”
“I mean what the hell is going on? Who is Carol Brown? What was that all about?”
Her anger wavered. “I don’t understand… you mean… oh God, don’t tell me…”
“What?” I asked, my anger rising.
Unexpectedly, she laughed in my face.
Now I was completely lost. “What?”
“You really thought I was some single, horny sales rep catting around Cape May? Do you think we’re living in Grey’s Anatomy?”
I put my hands on my hips, personally affronted. “Since that’s what you told me you were, yes. I did.”
She laughed again and put a hand on my shoulder.
I said, “I don’t find this particularly funny.”“How could you not know who I am? I’m in the paper every week! Exit Zero covers our council meetings like they’re the damn Warren Commission.”
I could have told her my tortured history with Exit Zero, how original founder Donal Lonegan had made me out a fool before going crazy and deciding to kill a bunch of his writers as ‘The Editor’ serial killer, before getting whacked himself by my partner and that now, even though a couple of allies ran it, I was still leery of cracking open an issue. But I didn’t. Instead I said, “I don’t read much.”
To which Janice replied, “Why am I not shocked by that?”
I was getting a little tired of people making me feel stupid.
Perhaps sensing my indignation she said, “I’m sorry. I thought… I thought you were playing the game with me.”
I pouted. “I wasn’t.”
She removed her hands from my body, which left me oddly disappointed.
“Really, I’m sorry. My husband and I have… had… a complicated relationship.”
“What’s so complicated?” I asked rhetorically. “He was gay, you’re not, you sought out companionship. Human Nature 101.”
She cocked an eyebrow. Impressed?
I went on, “The important thing is to figure out who did this and why.”
“Thank you,” she said. “And… I’m sorry. It was presumptuous of me to assume you knew. Now you’re in an awkward position.”
The phrase laid there a moment, gaining momentum.
She could not resist, and with a wicked smile said, “And not for the first time.”
I said, “Enough. Now that you’ve had your fun, I’d appreciate it if we can keep everything on a profesisonal level from here on out. No more games.”
She nodded. “No more games.”
“You’re sure you’ve told us everything?”
“All right, then. I’ll be calling soon.”
I turned and left the kitchen, headed for the front door.
“Mr Whitaker,” she stopped me. “Travis.”
I turned. “Yes?”
She wrung her hands, looked at the floor, then back to me. “I really enjoyed our time together. Maybe after all of this…”
“One thing at a time, Janice.”
Then I left. I thought I played it cool, but who knew? One thing was for certain; once I told Tim, and I would have to tell Tim, there would be no end to the ball-breaking.
I walked up the street and hopped in the car, which had been running long enough to still be goddamned freezing. I sat, blew on my hands, and looked at Tim.
He was smiling. “Mr Whitaker?”
How did he already know?
Police HQ, Washington Street, a few minutes later
We sat at the table across from Lionel Jeffries, a handsome African-American of about 30, same age as Tim. They’d gone to high school together. Had a history. I didn’t know him from Lionel Jefferson. Is that racist? Felt racist.
I started, “We’ll try to keep this brief.”
Lionel was shiny with sweat. I could only imagine how nervous a young black man might feel sitting in a police station with a murder floating around.
“How’s it going, Lionel?” Tim asked and offered a hand.
“Been better,” he answered.
I ignored their obvious camaraderie. “Mr Jeffries, according to this police report, the Rappaports hired you two weeks ago to fix their ailing chimney, work you started just two days ago.”
“Yeah,” Lionel replied. “I had two other smaller jobs to finish out at the Point. Point’s a goddamned gold mine for a mason. Shit’s always falling apart out there. Gonna put my kids through college.”
“You have kids?” I asked.
Lionel shook his head. “Figure of speech.”
I continued, “Says here you were home alone last night, watching TV, but don’t remember what you were watching.”
Lionel licked his lips and averted his gaze. Lying. “Was probably SportsCenter, I was trying to catch the scores.”
Lionel shrugged, “Sixers. Phillies. You know.”
“Phillies don’t play in December. You know?”
“Just catching the scores…”
He was clearly nervous now, playing with his hands, folding, unfolding his arms.
“Big fan,” I said.
“Easy,” Tim cautioned.
I said, “We’re talking about ten hours ago, Tim, and he can’t remember what he watched? Doesn’t pass the smell test.”
“Why don’t you tell us what you were really doing, Mr Jeffries?”
“Okay,” he said. “You’re bound to find out anyway. I was with a lady.”
I looked at Tim, perhaps a little too happy with myself.
I said. “Any particular lady? Anybody who can vouch for your whereabouts? It’s pretty important for you that this lady actually exists.”
Again he hemmed and hawed. “Damn, man…”
I leaned away from the table, giving him space. “Why don’t we start with a place? Where were you with a lady?”
Calmly I asked, “What kind of lady? Local? Tourist?”
Lionel looked me in the eye. “Yes.”
The Rappaport Home
“That part about telling me everything, was I not clear on that?” I said to Janice Rappaport, who sat across from me, fiddling with her laptop.
“I didn’t want to embarrass Lionel, or my husband.”
Tim just sat there, listening. Lionel had told us everything, which was just about exactly what I’d told Tim on our way to police HQ an hour ago. Janice posed as an out-of-town sales rep, engaged Lionel in conversation, they had a few drinks, ended up upstairs. Except, unlike me, Lionel was hip to the game, as he’d been hammering away at their chimney only a few hours earlier.
“I go to the Brown Room on Thursday nights to hear the piano player,” Lionel had told us. “Five or six drinks in a pretty lady comes up, took a few minutes to figure out who it was. I tried to play it off, but she was committed. So I went along. We went upstairs, did our thing.”
I wondered if Janice had a room on retainer there.
“How long have you been putting on this little act?” I asked.
Janice cleared her throat. “I have been entertaining gentlemen ever since I entered into my arrangement with James. It has been common knowledge among my friends. For those with any faint sense of decorum…”
Her eyes penetrated me.
“… it is not a big deal. I was happy, my husband was happy, and my male, sometimes female friends, were extremely happy.”
I could not argue that. Her skills were impressive.
“That’s all well and good,” I told her, “but when this gets out there will be scandal; two prominent members of the local government are involved.”
“It is my hope,” she replied, “that I can rely on the discretion of all involved.”
I shook my head. “I don’t see how that can happen.”
“I do,” Janice said and turned the laptop around.
On the screen a grainy image appeared; Janice, turning on the embedded webcam and stepping away in lingerie. She looked spectacular. The time stamp on the video was last night, 11:37pm, around the time of the murder. The camera adjusted. Janice climbed onto the bed and lay down in a luxurious pose. Across the room a door opened and steam billowed out. Lionel Jeffries, wrapped in a towel, appeared, freshly showered and a little drunk. More importantly, the video and time stamps firmed up his alibi.
Lionel climbed into bed with her. Janice Xed out the screen.
Tim cleared his throat. “I don’t see how, aside from covering Lionel’s ass…” I clenched at the poor choice of words, “… that video guarantees silence.”
Janice looked at me.“I told you,” she said, “I always have my laptop with me.”
She clicked a folder on the desktop labeled “Meeting Notes.”It opened, revealing what must have been 100 video files.
“I’ve had many meetings over the years,” she said, acid honey dripping from her voice, “and I’m sure most of the participants would be loathe to allow the details of those meetings to become public domain.”
I turned red. From anger, fear, frustration. It meant I would have to swallow the guilt of my indiscretion for, well, forever.
“Are we clear?” She asked.
I said nothing.
Tim said, “We’re clear, ma’am.”
Then we left.