It’s a homicidal holiday, and only Travis Whitaker can crack the case…
Chapter Four: Santa’s Slay
December 22. Night. Cape May Point.
The killer moved stealthily through the stables at the Shady Acres Horse Farm, where the local bluebloods bridled their beasts. His suit was blood red in the gloom, the white trim standing out as if on a gingerbread man. The wind howled against the wooden frame of the stables, rustled the surrounding trees violently. One tall streetlamp lit the frozen mud of the stable throughway, flickered on and off, as if the light itself was too cold to commit.
From a distance he heard jingle bells.
The killer peered through the slats of the feeding trough and saw the sleigh round the bend and enter the light. Eight horses, tethered two-by-two, pulled a red carriage decked out in all sorts of Christmas finery; string of holly, plastic icicles, silver and gold tinsel. The horses themselves were lined top to bottom with bells. Hundreds of them. They must have enjoyed that.
They neared the stables with the quickened trot of an animal that knows it’s done dragging tourists around town to gape at bed and breakfasts for $50 a pop.
Atop the sleigh, on the driver’s bench, sat a severe-looking woman of about 50, pinched face framed by short hair and broken by black glasses. She huddled against the cold, her slight frame nearly disappearing into her parka.
“Hyah!” she called and snapped the riding crop across the rear of the last horse.
The horses pulled into the stable.
“Easy now!” the woman cried and pulled back on the bridle. The horses stopped, chuffed, beat the ground. The woman set the crop on the seat, dismounted, closed and locked the gate. As she did so the killer crept out of the stall and up into the passenger seating of the sleigh.
The stable was large enough to easily fit the stables and horses. Each side was lined with six kennels for the animals. The walls were covered with all manner of horse-riding gear. It was roughly the size of a small barn.
The woman slammed a large slide bolt into the wall, applied a large U-lock, and climbed back into the sleigh. She reached for the crop. It was gone.
The crop struck her across the face, parting the skin, sending her glasses flying.
“Hyah!” the killer shouted.
The crop stung across her face a second time. Stunned, silent, she brought her hands to her face and brought them away covered in blood.
The killer wasted no time. He held the crop between his teeth and grabbed her. The killer was big, powerfully built. He easily bundled and lifted the 95-pound woman over his head like a rag doll. Now she whimpered.
He took aim and threw her forward. She landed with a jingle in the center of the eight humiliated horses.
She found her voice. “PLEASE!”
The killer took the crop from his mouth. “Merry Christmas…”
He grabbed the bridle and raised the crop. He brought it down fiercely on the haunches of the last two animals, again and again, his arm a blur. The greats beasts bucked, tried to pull away, but he held the bridle fast.
“HYAH!” he cried again and continued punishing the animals.
Like a rippling wave their displeasure spread to the horses in front of them. They whinnied and neighed and began clomping their hooves on the frozen dirt.
“No! Help!” the woman shouted. “Plea…”
Her breath was stomped out by a hoof on her chest, the words died in her throat.
The stomping was rhythmic now, steady, as the horses began to panic. Beneath them, the small woman was pounded mercilessly, hooves raining down on her arms, legs, her face. What was one moment a living, breathing human being in the next became 90 pounds of tenderized meat. Her ribs bent but didn’t break, penetrated her lungs and heart, her ribcage, sticking out like broken saplings. Her head deflated like a water balloon.
Adriana Rosensweig was very dead.
The killer stopped beating the animals, dismounted from the carriage, and went off into the cold, dark night.
Later. Cape May.
Santa slid the last few pieces of the intricate device together, pulled out the tiny antenna, swaddled it in its silk, lacey blanket, and slowly, carefully lowered it into the stocking. The stocking said “Charles” on it in glue and glitter that gleamed in the gray light of deep night. Charles’ stocking was one of several that hung on the large hearth in the large house with the large yard and, most likely, large mortgage. Next to Charles hung stocking for “Samantha,” “Ellen,” “Susanne” and “Kurt,” in descending chronological order, the entire Sutcliffe brood represented. Two of the three children were absent, grown, graduated and moved out, on to their real lives in parts yonder, scheduled to arrive the next day.
Upstairs the youngest, Kurt, slept in his room adorned with Michael Vick and Tim Tebow posters, like a lot of American 10th graders that didn’t love dogs, iPod earbuds on his pillow, some terrible rap-pop hybrid blaring forth, something by Eminem and Bruno Mars, or Kanye West and Rihanna, or MC Abbott and DJ Costello.
His mother, Charles’ wife, Samantha, slept in the room furthest down the upstairs hall, the flickering black-and-white light from her 48-inch plasma TV as it played Miracle on 34th Street unable to penetrate her Ambien and Chardonnay-induced slumber.
Other than that it was perfectly quiet.
The house was big, as big as the Rappaport home, but different, more modern, more nouveau riche, as the Sutcliffe family was, Charles having invented some sort of Internet widget that landed them millions on an IPO in the go-go ‘90s of Bill Clinton’s America. It sat in the Christian Admiral Estates, built in the footprint of the late, lamented Christian Admiral hotel, which brought a little F. Scott, West Egg boho to the little beach town some decades ago. Now, though, it was remembered mostly in postcards and in the thousands of pieces of china and silver that inhabit a thousand different homes since being auctioned off in the days before demolition.
The tacky McMansions that now stood there were like graffiti on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Santa flipped on the small remote unit and backed out of the living room just as keys rattled in the front door. As the door swung open, Santa moved through the adjacent kitchen and into the screened in porch. He’d known the Sutcliffes, and for that matter the Rappaports and the lesbian Jewess Rosensweig, who didn’t even BELIEVE in Christmas and yet still profited from it, long enough to know all the personal little things that mattered, like where they lived, what time they came home from work, where they liked to go for dinner. And what their alarm codes were.
So Santa tapped in the numbers mere seconds after Charles Sutcliffe and slid out the screen door and into the backyard, then around to the front of the house, then finally across the street, by the dunes, at just such an angle to keep the fireplace in sight.
Inside, Charles Sutcliffe, fresh from a meeting in Orlando, Florida, shrugged off his coat and hat and placed them in the closet.
He set his briefcase on the small table on the foyer, cracked it open, fished a bunch of receipts out of his various pockets, and placed them in a manila folder inside the case. The receipts showed several dinners, car rentals and gas fill-ups, all the usual monetary trappings of a six-day business trip.
He did not have receipts for the hookers or the blow.
He set the case down next to the little table and made his way to the stairs. But something caught his eye.
On the very expensive mirror hanging over the very expensive buffet in the foyer larger than most people’s living rooms was a note, printed in a swooshy, loosey-goosey font meant to exude sexiness.
“Go to the dining room…” Beneath it, attached with Scotch tape, was a stocking. Not a Christmas stocking, a sheer, silk stocking. Red. Sexy.
In the dining room, hanging from the chandelier that hung low over the dinner table, he found a similar note saying, “Go to the kitchen…” Attached to this note was the other red knee-high.
In the kitchen he found the garter belts. In the den he found the bustier. In the freezer the eight-inch stilettos.
The chill air of the freezer cooled his now sweaty face, little puffs of steam bounced off his brow. He felt a small pang at the recent memory of the hookers, but it had been so long since Samantha had shown him any womanly attention… he had no way of knowing this was waiting for him at home.
Of course, it seemed so unlike her because it was so unlike her. This had all been Santa’s doing, a little hide and seek to buy him enough time to get clear of the house, but Charles didn’t know that, nor would he as the last few seconds of his life ticked down.
Inside the freezer, which also served to noticeably cool the fire brewing in Charles’ pants, the last note said, “Now go to the stocking, bring the outfit upstairs…”
Charles did as directed, gathered the clothing in his now shaking arms… he had been so hot for his wife for so long… and stumbled excitedly into the living room and the fireplace. Sticking out of the top of his stocking was a lacey, silky, frilly piece of cloth, barely there, really, some sort of exotic, sexy women’s underwear that always mystified Charles.
He licked his lips and with shortened breath pulled up on the garment. With a tug it came loose. Something was rolled up inside it. Small, cylindrical. Charles stomch did somersault. Could it be… some kind of… (gulp)… toy?
He unwrapped the object.
It was not a toy.
Across the street, through a spyglass, Santa watched Charles Sutcliffe pull the expensive silk thing from the stocking and examine it a moment. It only took a moment for the truth of the moment to settle in, which is when Santa pressed the button on the remote.
The front of the house vanished in an eruption of light and fire. The shockwave sent Santa flying backwards into the dunes. Bits of burning wood and other matter began to rain down around him.
He patted at his smoldering beard, half in shock; the blast was only meant to be a tenth as powerful, enough to take out Charles. Clearly there had been a miscalculation. Clearly no one in the house could have survived such a blast.
Santa gathered himself, bundled against the wind roaring off the ocean 50 yards behind him, and left.
He was crying.
December 23. Morning. Cape May.
There are lots of ways the universe tells you that it’s just not going to be your day: waking up with a severe nail-being-pounded-into-your-temple hangover while gagging on Wawa hoagie flavored burps of Italian meats and cured peppers, forgetting to set your clock forward/ back on the time switch and either running constantly behind or constantly ahead all day, and when all three of your phones start ringing and your police scanner goes all kablooey at 4am.
It was that last thing that greeted me on this particular day, though the first two have also been known to afflict me regularly. At around 2am as I drifted off while watching Justified on my laptop (Timothy Olyphant is what I want to be when I grow up… Timothy Olyphant that writes like Robert Crais and sings like Michael Stipe), I thought I must have been dreaming the loud boom that rattled my windows. Turns out I wasn’t.
I should have known, right then, dream or no dream, that this big boom had something to do with my investigation. Because right now, at this moment, bad things were happening, quickly, and I felt like my clock was an hour behind.
“I brought coffee,” Tim announced as he entered my office. Well, our office. I was still feeling a little proprietary.
“Thanks,” I answered.
Lionel Jeffries, our first suspect, since cleared, followed behind Tim.
“I brought Lionel,” Tim said.
“I can see that. Morning, Lionel.”
He nodded at me, offered a hand. I shook it.
“That business earlier,” I said, referencing my grilling him at police HQ, “that’s nothing personal…”
He waved me off, “Just doing your job. We’re cool.”
I nodded and slurped at the coffee. “You guys dating now or did Tim bring you for a reason?”
“Hilarious,” Tim replied. I thought it was okay for a shade before 5am.
“I have experience with explosives,” Lionel said.
“Really?” I asked, impressed.
Lionel nodded. “Was an ordnance disposal chief in the navy. I’ve also brought down a few buildings with my dad and pop-pop.”
I looked at Tim and nodded. “Great thinking, really good.”
“Thanks,” he replied. “Where are you?”
“After my scanner started chirping I called Shawn… Officer Austin to get the skinny, he confirmed the explosion at the Sutcliffe home. And while I’m talking to him he gets the call that another body was found at the horse ranch, Adriana Rosensweig. A quick Google confirmed they were both sitting members of Cape May City Council, like the late James Rappaport. Don’t have to be a detective to see it’s connected.”
Tim said, “That makes three dead, what about the other two?”
“Detective Curtis had units pick up Janice Rappaport,” I flushed a bit at the mention of her name, “and the Reverend Milo Binkley, they should both be in protective custody by now.”
“Jesus,” Tim said as he and Lionel sat, “seems like a week ago we were at Rappaports.”
“Right?” I said, “He’s been dead, like, 36 hours now. Rosensweig and Sutcliffe are still warm. Well, technically. He’s more like a cinder, she’s more like frozen jelly, but… that’s the metaphor I’m going with. Cut me some slack. It’s 5am.”
We sipped coffee quietly for a few moments, then came a loud knock at the door. Tim and Lionel did not move.
“I’ll get it,” I said with mild exasperation.
Tim and Lionel smiled, sharing a moment. I got jealous. The detective as needy girlfriend.
“What’s the next step, bwana?” Tim asked as I moved around my desk to the door.
“Task force,” I said.
“Task force,” I said with a wink and opened the door.
A debiltatingly cold wind whooshed through my office. Thick flurries swarmed through the little spotlight over my door, made it hard to see. I held a shielding hand over my eyes and squinted into the light.
“Well I’ll be…”There, standing on my front porch, stood, I kid you not, Santa Claus.