It’s a homicidal holiday, and only Travis Whitaker can crack the case.
Chapter 5: Ho ho… ho?
December 23, Early Morning.
For a moment or two I was sure Tim had spiked my coffee. There, standing on my little front deck, stood Santa Claus, all twinkly-eyed and white-bearded, with little wire-rimmed glasses, smoking a pipe.
“Good morning,” he said. He didn’t sound jolly, but who does at 5am?
“Good… morning,” I replied.
In the swirling flurries I saw the black coat and brown mittens and realized it wasn’t the real Santa, just a guy who bore a strong resemblance. I tried to hide my disappointment. “Can I help you?”
At that moment a CMPD squad car pulled into my driveway and parked. From it emerged Detective Ike Curtis. He put a hand on his hat against the breeze, his worn tan overcoat fluttered like a beige flag.
“Mr Nicholas,” Curtis said to the man on my porch. “I see you’ve met Mr Whitaker.”
“Only briefly,” the presumed Mr Nicholas replied.
Curtis said, “Any chance we can go inside? It’s colder than my wife’s shoulder out here.”
I’d met Detective Curtis twice in the last 24 hours, each time there was a cutting remark against his wife. I assumed things were not good at home.
“Sure,” I said and ushered them in.
I pulled a couple of extra chairs out and now, with my partner Tim Demarco and his friend Lionel Jeffries already in there, my office felt a little tight. Everyone sat, introductions were made, the last being the Santa-like Mr Nicholas.
“This is Mr Klaus Nicholas,” Detective Curtis told us. “An old friend and someone whose expertise I thought might come in handy.”
Everyone thought it but I was the first to ask, “Expertise on what?”
“Why, Christmas, my dear boy,” Nicholas answered with a chuckle. Detective Curtis laughed along with him.
“Oh yeah…” Tim said, something dawning on him.
“I get it,” Lionel followed.
I said, “Well when any of you feel like filling me in…’
I always get testy when I feel like I’m missing something. I get testy often.
“My friend,” Nicholas started, “the methods of these murders is quite clear once you put some thought into it.”
Wow. A backhanded slap from Santa. I stewed a bit.
“Cut the kid a break,” Curtis said, “he’s had a long couple of days.”
I nodded at him.
“Of course,” he continued, “I did not mean to offend. But let’s look at the facts, shall we? James Rappaport; killer enters through the chimney. Ms. Rosensweig; stomped to death by eight horses attached to a sleigh. And Charles Sutcliffe, the explosive that wiped out him, his wife and his son originated at the fireplace, where one might traditionally hang a stocking with care.”
After a moment I said, “Makes sense.’
Curtis nodded, pulled a cigarette from his raincoat and lit up. I pulled an ashtray from my desk drawer.
Lionel leaned in. “What kind of explosive?”
Curtis shook his head. “We think something homebrewed. No indication so far of any refined machinery, no exotic chemical compounds have pinged the radar.”
“We also,” Nicholas continued, “think he may not have meant to kill everyone in the house.”
“Right,” Curtis continued. “The first two murders were very specific. If he wanted to kill multiples, and assuming his point is to wipe out the city council, as seems painfully obvious at this point, so obvious I’m sure even you’ve figured it out by now…”
“… he simply could have waited for Janice Rappaport to come home the other night and did both of them then and there.”
“He’s got a message,” Tim interjected. Curtis agreed, “Exactly.”
“This may seem like a stupid question to all of you genius crimefighters,” I said evenly, “but at this point how can we even be sure this has all been done by the same person?”
“That,” Curtis, “is not a stupid question at all.”
I sat up.
Curtis continued. “We found manure stains in the carpet at Sutcliffe’s, same pattern and boot size as the soot prints at the Rappaport’s. Ties all three together. It’s only been a few hours and nothing’s been 100% matched yet, but we think it will.’
I agreed. “Certainly strong enough evidence to move forward.”
Curtis nodded. “Any my friend Klaus here is an expert on all things Christmas. Tell them, Klaus.”
Klaus removed his glasses, wiped them with a small cloth from his pocket, packed and relit his pipe. When did my office all of a sudden become a Danish coffee shop?
“I’ll spare you the details, but since a young age I’ve been fascinated with Christmas mythology. I’ve spent my adult life studying Christmas. Even in college, though I am a lettered English scholar, I ostensibly graduated as a Christmas major.”
“So what’d you do?” I asked, “Open a Yuletide repair shop?”
Klaus laughed heartily. “No, my boy… I understand your cynicism. And no, there was not much of a living to be made for a Santa scholar. So I did the next best thing; I opened a Christmas store, maybe you’ve heard of it; Winterland?”
I had heard of it. “Little place on Washington Street?”
Nicholas nodded, “Yes, it’s small, but lucrative, enough to afford me a comfortable life in Cape May.”
Everyone nodded, knowing what that meant. Money. Lots of it.
“The shop is right across from the police station,” Curtis confirmed. “It’s how we met. Must be 20 years now. We’ve been drinking buddies ever since.”
“Neat.” Tim offered.
This all sounded hunky dory, but something wasn’t sitting right. “Not hard to figure a guy named Klaus Nicholas ends up in the Christmas racket.”
Nicholas laughed, “Of course, that’s not my birth name, but it is the name on my birth certificate. Klaus Nicholas is a very German name. I was born of Italian parentage. You see I changed my name after college…”
I said, incredulously, “You changed your name to Klaus Nicholas after college?”
Klaus was getting red. “Well, you see, it was… my life’s work… my business…”
“We can get into all that later,” Detective Curtis interrupted and butted his smoke out angrily. “Right now, we’ve got more important things to worry about.”
Tim said, “Damn right. Travis, stop being a dick. Klaus, thank you for helping.”
Hmm, must have been really bad for Tim to call me out like that. Still, I figured one of us ought to vet the guy.
Curtis said, “We’ve got his MO pegged and his next two presumptive targets in custody. He either must have known we’d find his trail or doesn’t care. Which means…”
“He’s confident,” I finished. “Or crazy.”
Curtis said, “Or both.”
Klaus said, “Ho ho ho.”
We spent the rest of the pre-dawn morning setting up our task force. Some time around 7am Officers Tony Genaro and Shawn Austin joined us at the start of their shifts. Shawn gave me one of those handshakes and chucks on the shoulder that said, “Sorry for being a jerk yesterday.” I was never much for that unspoken guy stuff; I’m more of a hugger and a talker. Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue? I’m the opposite of that guy. Might explain why I have so few guy friends.
Tony and Shawn would be relieving the guard detail set up at the safe house after a briefing with Detective Curtis. We had two main objectives; keep Janice Rappaport and Reverend Milo Binkley safe, and to brainstorm other avenues of attack the Santa killer might come up with and head them off. At this, Klaus Nicholas proved very helpful. His wealth of arcane Santa knowledge far surpassed the rest of ours. Detective Curtis was wise to bring him in.
Lionel and Tim ran out for coffee and other supplies, Tony and Shawn left for the safe house, Detective Curtis went back to CMPD HQ to follow up on the lab work, while we civilians did our volunteer thing.
Yes, it was sometime around daybreak that Detective Curtis thanked me for volunteering my time to the case. I hadn’t recalled volunteering for anything, and as it was every winter, my business was in off-season survival crisis mode, so I couldn’t really afford it. My conscience was too righteous to let me bill the time to Janice Rappaport, but neither would it let me walk away from this aspect of the case. Some people volunteer, some people have volunteerism thrust upon them. I would have to bask in the warmth that catching the killer would provide.
I was setting up my laptop when it dawned on me that Nicholas and I were now alone. There was palpable tension in the office as he made notes on a yellow legal pad.
I suck at confrontation. You wouldn’t think that of a guy who’d bagged a few killers in the last few years but, well, here we are. For me, it’s easier to face down a mob with guns trying to eat your brains than have a one-on-one conversation with someone you’ve recently offended.
“Mr Nicholas. I’d like to apologize for my comments before. I was out of line.”
Again he wiped the glasses. How dirty could they be? He looked at me with shiny eyes and sighed like a man who had a whole speech worked out in his head but decided to let it go. I knew that feeling.
“It’s okay, my boy,” he said. “I’m an intruder in your group. It’s smart to push my buttons. I bear no ill will.”
“I appreciate it,” I said. “And you’re right, I was just feeling you out. And truth be told, this ‘group’ of mine is all of about 36 hours old, so it’s not like you’re breaking up the ’27 Yankees. It was wrong of me to push so hard.”
Nicholas said. “It’s behind us.”
We shook hands. I resisted the urge to hug him. I saw the yellow legal pad on the small table he was using as his home base.
“What are you working on?”
He moved quickly and grabbed the pad. “Just working up a list of names, trying to make myself familiar with everyone involved. I’ve got a lot to catch up on.”
He stuck the pad under an arm and went back to the table.
For a few minutes we went through the motions of organizing the office. I would work at my desk, Nicholas at his small table, Tim would need to set up on a TV tray in the bedroom (call me a dick, will you…), and Lionel got the kitchen counter that halved the office.Tim and Lionel returned, we all sipped coffee, noshed on bagels and donuts, and tossed around ideas. Around 3 o’clock we broke for a late lunch-slash-early-dinner.
And that’s when our bad day got worse.
The Safe House.
Midday wasn’t an ideal time to commit murder, but fortunately for the killer, on December 23 very few eyebrows raised when Santa strolled through town with a sack full of goodies. From his home nearby he walked down the Washington Street Mall, plain as day. People saw him, recognized him, waved heartily, all joyous and full of festivity.
It had taken him all of 90 seconds on the computer to suss out the location of the CMPD safe house where his last two targets were being hidden. He knew they would catch on to him, but it wouldn’t matter.
Nothing could stop Santa. Didn’t they read the stories?
At the end of Washington he made a left on Perry, passed the Carpenter’s Square Mall and continued on toward the Star Motel. His targets were in rooms 8 and 10, on the second level, but first, a stop into the office.
“Ho ho ho!” he cried as the door bells jangled.
Officer Shawn Austin, in plainclothes and looking for all the world like a motel concierge behind the front desk, came to attention, his hand going to his his gun. But upon seeing Santa he relaxed and sat back.
“Good afternoon, Santa.”
Shawn went back to eyeing the camera monitors under the lip of the counter. Shawn absently said, “What have you got for us, Santa? Coffee, I hope…”
Santa replied, “Oh, I’ve got something much better…”
He placed the sack on the floor where Austin could not see it and took out the log. It was affixed to a handle and adorned with several metal spikes. He gripped the handle with both hands, torqued his body and swung it as hard as he could.
Officer Shawn Austin did not even have time to draw his weapon.
Santa stepped over him and grabbed the keys to rooms 8 and 10.
In room 8, the right-reverend Milo Binkley said a quick grace over his soup. He was a boyish 67 and enjoyed God, the church, his flock, and How I Met Your Mother, which he thought hid a wholesome message behind its bawdy façade. And that Neil Patrick Harris was a real hoot.
But none of that mattered when the crazed man in the Santa suit entered the room and began bludgeoning him with a devilish Yule log. As the blows rained down and his life neared its end, he became profoundly disappointed that he would never know who the mother was.
As all became fog, he heard the sounds of a struggle, raised voices, the deadly log striking home. The unconscious body of Officer Tony Genaro fell in front of him, to the floor, with a thud.
The door opened, the killer left, Milo Binkley died.
Janice Rappaport was not a stupid woman. At the first sounds of human struggle coming from next door she knew they had been found. Quickly, she slipped on her shoes, grabbed her bag, and went for the door.
She threw it open and, in her panic, nearly toppled over the railing to the parking area 10-feet below. She righted herself and, driven by fear, made for the stairs, the only route to which was past room 8. She screamed and sprinted, broke for freedom. Past the door. Her heart leapt. She was going to make it.
The door crashed open.
Pain knifed into her leg as the spike-laden Yule log plunged into her right calf, snapping her to a halt. The second blow landed on her left thigh, flesh and muscle tore on the spikes. Stars burst in her eyes and she fell to the ground.
Above her, the demonic man in the Santa suit raised the weapon for the kill.
“This is what you get for freezing me out, you bitch!”
He raised the Yule log.
A shot rang out. Santa stopped, a smoldering black hole in his right shoulder. A second shot rang and knocked the weapon from his hands.
At the top of the steps, covered in blood, Officer Shawn Austin lay, smoke rising from his weapon.
Janice pulled herself along the narrow balcony toward him, awaiting a death blow that never came.
Santa was gone.
She made it to the fallen policeman and cradled his ruined head as sirens wailed.
“Hang in there,” she said.
He gripped her arm. “Claus…”
“I know,” Janice told him. “The ambulance is almost here.”
But she knew he was dead.