It’s a homicidal holiday, and only Travis Whitaker can crack the case.
Chapter 6: ‘Twas The Night
December 23, early evening
I had never known a more helpless feeling. I had never known such impotent rage. I had never wanted to hurt someone more than I did right now. But all I could do was stare into the flurries as the medical examiner’s hearse drove away.
“He saved her,” Tim told me. “We have to remember that. He went out doing what he does.”
“Somehow,” I replied, “that doesn’t make me feel any better.”
As dusk gave way to night, the little parking lot at the Star Motel across from the mighty Congress Hall twinkled with lights. Not the Christmas kind, though; the red and blue kind, which generally meant bad news.
Tim said, “We can’t lose focus. We’ve got to stay on top of this guy, keep turning the screws…”
“I love you, Tim,” I said and cut him off. “You’ve had my back for three years now and I couldn’t ask for a better partner.”
“Thanks,” Tim replied.
I went on. “But right now I would deeply appreciate it if you would shut the hell up.”
He opened his mouth to speak, stopped, looked down at the asphalt, then walked away.
Of course he didn’t deserve it. But I was in a rotten mood, I had a killer to catch, and one of my few friends in this life was lying cold in the back of a Cadillac Krystal on his way to being sliced and diced, though the several crush and puncture wounds to the side of his head would seem to be the obvious cause of death.
And I was not happy about it.
The right-reverend Milo Binkley had also lost his life today as the Santa Killer made his way through the Cape May City Council with swift ferocity, the safety measure we’d put in place failing on all accounts. I made a little cross on my chest and made my way over to Janice Rappaport, who survived the attack by the deranged Santa by the grace of the now-deceased Officer Shawn Austin. She sipped a coffee, wrapped in a blanket. I wasn’t happy with her, either: her little sex tape games, buying everyone’s silence by surreptitiously recording her trysts, which occurred with shocking regularity, shocking at least to me, who was a co-star.
She assured us all the there were plenty of people whom she had recorded whose careers would be destroyed should we press the issue, so we decided not to press.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. I knew the answer, and it was really a stupid question, but I had to start somewhere.
She looked at me with tired eyes. “Like a million bucks.”
My anger melted away as I looked at her. The strong, confident woman, a “cougar” some might call her, that we’d encountered over the last three day was gone, replaced by this small, shaky thing wrapped in this blanket.
I leaned against the car next to her. “Hell of a week, eh?”
She nodded, leaned into me, and began sobbing.
I threw an arm around her.
A minute later, after she’d composed herself, I asked, “Did he say anything to you?”
She’d gone over all of this with the cops already, but I figured I’d follow-up, see if anything else shook loose.
“’Claus.’ Shawn said ‘Claus’ just before he…”
“It’s okay,” I told her. “We know the killer was dressed as Santa Claus. We have some fleeting video, nothing we can make an ID from. What about the killer? What did he say to you?”
She sat up tall and said, “’This is what you get for freezing me out, you bitch’.”
I nodded. “Any idea what that means?”
She shook her head, “None.”
As one-fifth, and currently all of the body that governed most of the daily goings-on of Cape May, the list of people unhappy with Janice was not short. The Washington Street Mall renovation from a few years back, a job as innocuous as changing the decaying patches of cement and cobblestone, had been delayed over a year by the public squabbling of a few vocal opponents. The fate of the decrepit Beach Theatre had also been the focal point of much public hand-wringing. Even the stupid goddamn little plastic lighthouses on the Cape May Bridge had earned much public scorn. And all of this did not even take into account the biggest boondoggle of them all; the new beachfront convention center.
What had begun several years earlier as a routine inspection to get approved some basic changes to the building, had ended up with the structure being condemned as unsafe. Since then a half-dozen architect’s plans had been approved, only to be recalled when popular opinion turned against it. A two-year project was now inching up on five. It did not help that on the first day of construction it was announced that the project was already almost $200,000 over budget. But at least heaven and earth had finally moved enough to allow actual construction on the new building, which was, by all accounts, going to be a beauty.
Local magazine Exit Zero, with whom I had a brief but spectacular history, kept tabs on it; publishing a photo a week of the building’s progress, and reminding the local populace of the good that would come with the city having a bona fide convention center, as opposed to a glorified roller rink. Yes, it appeared the new façade would disrupt the normal foot traffic patterns of the Beach Avenue promenade, but wouldn’t all the new tax and tourist income make up for the minor inconvenience? To many, the answer to that question was a resounding “no.”
But hey, some people disagreed with the Emancipation Proclamation, too. So what could you do? And why was the convention center sticking in my head?
“Tell me about the new convention center,” I said.
“Don’t get me started,” Janice replied.
I shrugged, “Just beating the bushes.”
“It’s our own little version of Obamacare,” she said. “The people that love it really love it. The people that hate it, hate it just as much, but are much more vocal about it.”
“How do you mean?”
“Letters, emails, suspicious packages… the works.”
She sighed and wilted a little. “Despite all the negative feedback and obstruction, I think everyone know that once it’s done it’s going to prove a huge boon to the local economy. The competition to secure one of the indoor shops got quite heated.”
“We, the council, tried our best to strike a balance between nurturing local businesses, but also including a few national chains that are a little more recession-proof. For instance, the 20-plus local frou-frou restaurants that applied for a lease were none too pleased that we went with a KFC/Taco Bell. The since-defunct Atlantic Books vehemently protested our inclusion of a Walden Books. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but I think the fact that Atlantic Books is no longer shows we made at least one right decision.”
I rubbed her shoulder. “I believe it was some intelligent Roman that said a society that governs by referendum will be a society for not much longer.”
“Easier said than done.”
I stood up. “Why don’t you send me all the emails, gather up all the letters and other stuff, lease applications, and we’ll take a look at them. Might be something, might be nothing.”
“Hang tight, we’ll get you an escort.”
She said, “I’ll just need a minute at my office. My laptop’s up in the room, so…”
We both hesitated, knowing full well what was on that laptop.
She continued, “So I’ll just need to grab it. There’s… there’s a lot of stuff on there I need to delete.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Thank you,” she replied.
I walked away, two EMTs went to her with extra blankets and fresh coffee.
“Anything?” Detective Ike Curtis asked me as I approached his group, which consisted of my partner, Tim DeMarco, and Officer Tony Genaro, who had also survived his encounter with the mad Santa. Curtis looked like a composite of every TV cop you’ve ever seen; a dash of Colombo, a smidge of Sipowicz, a sprinkling of Lenny Briscoe, finished with the warm demeanor of Joe Friday.
“Nothing she didn’t tell you,” I answered. “She’s going to get me all of her convention hall files. Figure it’s a start. She’ll need an escort to her office, then to a new safe house.”
“I’ll do it,” Tony said.
“Bullshit,” Curtis said. “You need to get to the hospital.”
“With all due respect, sir,” Tony said, “you can stuff it.”
I had recently become friends with Shawn Austin; we’d caught a few ball games, thrown back a few beers, swapped a few war stories. But Tony had been his partner for eight years. Had each other’s back for eight years. They’d spent more time with each other than their spouses. For eight years. And Shawn had bought it on Tony’s watch. Whatever grief I was feeling was but a drop in the bucket compared to Tony’s.
“Now look,” Detective Curtis said firmly, “I know you’re feeling it right now, but what happened wasn’t your fault. It was a goddamned fluke.”
This was perfectly true; when the Santa killer struck, Tony had been busy securing Reverend Milo Binkley’s room. They had only been in seclusion for a few hours, so Tony was making sure the surveillance cameras and security bars in the bathroom were 100% to his liking. The killer had serendipitously chosen that exact moment to burst into the room, with the keys he’d taken from Shawn Austin, and slaughter the reverend. When Tony emerged from the bathroom he hesitated for the briefest of moments before drawing his weapon. It was the moment the killer needed to get the drop on him and whack him with the Yule log weapon he’d constructed. It was only the killer’s zeal to get to Mrs Rappaport that left him alive.
“There’s no way I can keep you on duty,” Detective Curtis finished.
Tony dropped the ice pack. “Then you’ll have to shoot me,” he said and made his way over to Janice.
“That guy…” Curtis said as he lit a cigarette. “Wish I had ten more just like him.”
“You can’t let him go,” Tim said. “He’s in no condition…”
“I’m not an idiot, Boot Strap,” Curtis said, digging on Tim’s resemblance to the actor Orlando Bloom in the Pirate movies. “But how would you suggest I stop him?”
Tim, properly chastised, said nothing.
“Where you going to keep her?” I asked.
Curtis answered, “916 Queen Street, a little cottage off the main road, perfect for hiding someone.”
I nodded. “My office.”
“Think you and your gang can keep an eye on her for a few hours ‘til we get something else set up? We didn’t entertain the possibility that the first one might not be good enough.”
“Not a problem,” I said. “Tim, call Lionel and Klaus, have them meet you there ASAP. Make sure the alarm is engaged. I’ll grab some provisions and hit the storage unit.”
“What do you have in there?” Curtis asked.
I looked him in the eye. “Firepower.
”He nodded. “Make it happen. My men will meet you there in 30 minutes, after Mrs Rappaport gets her things squared away.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sounds like a plan. I’ll need about an hour. Tim, set Janice up in the spare room. Bar the windows and doors. Nobody gets in without proper credentials, and even then I want you to call their staff sergeant, supervisor, mother, first cousin and six other people before you open the door.”
“Got it,” Tim said and left.
I took another minute to go over the plan with Curtis, Genaro, and the tw0 foot patrolmen who’d be assisting, then I made my way to the storage place out by the Cape May Airport. It’s where I kept all my most exotic shit I didn’t feel comfortable leaving in the office. When I left I had enough small arms to outfit a small unit of Marines.
Too bad none of it would turn out to do a lick of good.
916 Queen Street
The killer closed his cell phone. Things were happening quickly now. How could the cop have not been dead? He crushed the side of his head, left him in a pool of his own blood, bits of brain clung to his Yule log mallet. Yet somehow the cop had managed to put a bullet through his shoulder.
He had to admire the dying man’s tenacity, but was furious at himself for botching the job. One more swing would have done it. He had gotten sloppy, arrogant, and it all fell apart.
Unable to go to a hospital, the killer went to his own home to plug the hole in his right clavicle with gauze and super glue and duct tape. Lucky for him it was a through-and-through. Painful, to be sure, but pain could be managed with the various painkillers he’d acquired over the years to deal with his aches and pains. He also swallowed a handful of antibiotics to fight off the inevitable infection. If he could make it through the next few days, a week maybe, he could then concoct some story about a hunting accident and see a doctor. In another state. Or another country. He had the means.
But he could do nothing about the panic that gripped him in the wake of his simple plan falling apart. He racked his brain, but could not see a way out that did not end in death or jail.
Until his phone rang. When he answered it he divined clarity heretofore unknown. It all clicked together. But it was happening soon, and there was much to do.
Grunting against the pain, being careful to stay out of sight, he had made his way to the small cottage on Queen Street. Once or twice he thought he may have been spotted, but to the average person he would appear to be but a lonely Santa on his way to some holiday party or another. The blood from his wound about perfectly matched the crimson of his suit. The bullet hole would be indistinguishable from a distance of more than five feet.
Outside the cottage he clipped the wire and attached the small device to the electricity meter, where it seemed perfectly normal among the other metal doo-dads.
Then back home, through the back of the shop and into his small apartment to strip off the costume and apply more glue and tape to the wound.The suit went into the roaring fireplace. The phone buzzed. A text message.
He quickly dressed in regular clothes, popped more pills.The phone buzzed again.
He swallowed hard and texted back, “1 minute.”
“K,” came the reply.
He took a deep breath and steadied himself. Calm, he went into his bathroom and grabbed a handful of painkillers, then into the small kitchenette and grabbed the quart bottle of egg nog from the fridge and a sleeve of Entemann’s cookies from the pantry. He then exited back out through the shop, out into the night. The car was there, a black Honda Accord. He went to it and climbed inside.
“Gentlemen, what has happened?” he asked.
Tim replied, “Nothing good. We need to get to the office, I’ll fill you in when we get there.”
“Understood,” the killer said.
Lionel, driving, asked, “You need anything before we get there?”
Klaus answered, “Nothing that can’t wait a few hours.”