It’s a homicidal holiday, and only Travis Whitaker can crack the case.
Chapter 7: Horrid Holidays
December 24, 10pm
By the time I got back to the office it was snowing hard, blown harder and sideways by the ever-present, malicious Cape May winds that roared off the ocean and generally raised the Miserable Factor by about 35% on a daily basis. And that’s on a good day. Forget what you’ve heard about Chicago; Cape May is THE Windy City.
When I pulled into my driveway the lights from my porch skittered through the flakes. I hurriedly opened the trunk and grabbed the bag of weapons I’d secured from my storage unit. These were the “fun” weapons I kept but never thought I’d need. But now I was tasked with keeping someone alive, someone being stalked by a relentless and brazen killer, so it seemed the right time for some fancy fireworks.
I used my key and alarm code to enter the office. Waiting for me were my partner, Tim DeMarco, his friend Lionel Jeffries, who’d become a de facto part of the crew, Santa expert Klaus Nicholas (can you believe that name?) and the widow Janice Rappaport, who’d lost her husband to our Christmas killer a scant 4 days ago, which seemed like a month ago, and was now under our… my… protection.
“Sorry it took me so long,” I said as I dropped the heavy canvas bag on my desk. “Damn lock was frozen. How’s everything here?”
“Buttoned up,” Tim answered. He whistled when he opened the bag. “Planning on a nuclear winter?”
“Aren’t they all?” I replied as I hung up my hat and coat.
“Damn,” Lionel remarked as he peeked over Tim’s shoulder.
“May I?” Klaus asked as he reached for a .44 Magnum.
I snatched his wrist, perhaps a little too brusque. “Sorry, only Tim and I are certified. ”
Klaus nodded, mildly abashed. “Of course. My apologies.”
He retreated the little kitchen area behind my desk.
I sniffed. “What smells good?”
Klaus chuckled a Santa-ish chuckle. “Well, as it seems we will be here until at least Christmas Eve day, if not longer, I thought I’d make us some cookies. Got some nice Egg Nog, too. They’ll be ready shortly.”
I shrugged, “Sure, why not.” And I had to admit, it did smell good. I hadn’t eaten all day what with all the death and destruction, and my tummy rumbled.
One look at Janice, a vivacious woman of about 50 reduced to a shrinking mass on the small couch in my office, and those nerves disappeared.
True, she had rooked me, and several other including Lionel, into this with covert recordings of our sexual encounters over the last several months ago, but that all seemed secondary now, and she’d honorably erased the files tonight, or so she said she would.
Regardless, she was now under my umbrella and I had a job to do.
“How you holding up?” I asked and sat next to her, threw an arm around her. She was shivering.
“You want the truth?” She answered.
I smiled. “Not especially.”
“Then I’m doing great,” she said with a sad grin.
I rubbed her shoulder for a moment or two, then asked, “Did you… uh, did you get to those files?”
I could think of no delicate way to ask if she’d deleted the sex tapes yet.
“I tried to,” she answered. “I moved them all to a secure Internet server when all this began, for safekeeping… Jesus, it all seems so foolish and petty now, and juvenile and prurient…”
“You did what you did,” I told her. “Right or wrong, it’s done. What’s important is making it right now.”
“Yes,” she said. “You’re right, of course. Though I can’t say I won’t miss them. They were… they made me feel vibrant, young, alive. That must seem so silly to you, like why aging actresses agree to pose in Playboy… it’s so we’ll have something to look back on and remember.”
I said, “That doesn’t sound silly at all. And if none of this had happened… well, no harm no foul, I suppose, what people don’t know won’t hurt them and all.”
“If you say so,” she said wearily.
“And James, your husband, he was okay with it?”
“As you know,” she answered, “James was a gay man, our union was one of financial, political and friendly expediency. He enjoyed viewing them for different reasons than I. I made sure my partners were always attractive, for him and me.”
“I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Yes. James was quite taken with you and your… enthusiasm. You weren’t the most polished, but you were certainly ardent.”
She sensed my discomfort, though it wasn’t really discomfort. It was more like… something different. Something I didn’t know what the hell it was.
“I’m being inappropriate,” she said demurely. “The point is; I tried to erase them but was unable to find an Internet connection to get to the protected site.”
“Hmm,” I commented brilliantly. “That’s odd. I’ve got wifi. Was working fine this morning. Tim?”
“Boss?” Tim replied because he knew it annoyed me.
“Any trouble getting on the internet?”
“Let me check. We’ve been busy battening the hatches.” He went to my desktop PC, clicked around for a bit. “Nothing. Router looks good, but no signal.”
“Call Comcast, see if there’s anything about any outages,” I said to Tim. To Janice I said, “Sometimes when the weather kicks up we lose signal. And it’s definitely kicking up out there.”
“A white Christmas,” She said joylessly.
Tim picked up the phone, clicked the receiver a few times, and looked at me gravely.
“Don’t say it,” I requested.
“Phone’s out, too,” Tim said, ignoring my request.
“Comcast Triple Play,” I said to myself. “What a bargain. One thing goes out they all go out. It’s like a string of Christmas lights. I’ll go check the cable. Try calling on my cell,” I tossed him my phone. “888-COMCAST.”
I grabbed my coat and hat, I shivered just thinking about going back outside.
“I’ll come with,” Klaus offered.
“No,” I stopped him. “Stay here. All hands on deck, please.”
He shrugged and went back to his cookies, I went out the door.
My office cottage was set cozily away from the main part of Queen Street, behind the 3-story home I’d acquired from a dead uncle and turned into apartments. Cape May was full of small apartments regular working people couldn’t afford, so I made 3 big apartments regular working people could afford and made very little money off of them, enough to break even, cover the monthly nut on the house, and occasionally sock a few bucks away, bucks that invariably went towards keeping the lights on when the town rolled up the sidewalks in January. Seasonal living. It’s for the birds.
Anyway, I cinched my scarf up over my face to keep it from blistering in the cold. The cable connection was, of course, in the back near the utility hook-up, so I’d need to push my way through the thick shrubs on the side of the house, which I was just sure would be all pointy and scratchy.
They did not disappoint.
I cleared the bushed, several new facial scratches stinging in the diabolically cold wind, and saw exactly why the cable was out.
The cable was sheared off at the junction box, sliced clean. I yanked up on the wire; it was stuck fast in the frozen ground. A little light bled out of a back window and I could just make out several large chunks of ice. I looked up at my roof; several long icicles hung for dear life on the gutter. So it wasn’t them. So it must have been a sheet had blown off my roof and straight down, severing the cable. Over the kitchenette is a little sun window that glazes over in the winter, regularly growing then shedding neat little squares of ice in the dastardly wind. That’s what it must have been, I thought, as I looked again down at the shards of ice near the shorn cable. Or at least, that’s what it looked like. The detective at work.
“What are the freakin’odds…”
But before the words left my lips my hackles went up.
What were the odds?
It looked for all the world like a freak act of wind and frozen water had done in my cable connection, and on a normal day I wouldn’t have questioned it. But this was not a normal day. It was pretty damn far from a normal day.
And just as it sank in that this was no accident, right behind it sank another thought.
He knows we’re here.
My heart leapt. Was I too late? Had the killer already burst into my office and slaughtered everyone while I stared at a bunch of snow and ice like a confused dog?
I hurriedly pushed my way back through the shrubs, up onto my little front deck and grabbed the knob to my office door.
No… wait. I locked it on my way out.
I pulled the key from my coat pocket, used it, and went inside.
My heart thumped in my ears as I surveyed the room; all seemed calm, all seemed bright, Tim monkeying with the wireless router, Lionel tapping away on my laptop, Klaus placing some cookies on a plate, Janice fingering her smartphone.
I stood there and said nothing for what felt like a long time. It took a while but Tim finally saw me. His face went from a frustrated red to a mottled grey when he looked at me.
“What is it?” he asked.
A bead of sweat ran down my nose, joined by several more running down my back.
“He knows we’re here.”
Tim stood, put his hand on the butt of the .44 in his waist. “How do you know?”
I nodded towards the door. “Cable’s cut.”
Tim started, “Are you sure it’s not just…”
“Is that why my cell isn’t working, either?” Janice asked.
I looked to her and wished I had a different answer, but all I could say was, “Probably. Anyone getting cell service?”
Everyone went to their pockets and answered me with frowns.
“Awesome,” I said.
Lionel chimed in. “I was able to retrieve a voicemail from your computer…”
I was nonplussed. “You can do that?”
He shrugged, “It all comes in through the cable, so… yes.”
“Huh,” I muttered, a little more impressed with Lionel Jeffries; Mason, demolition expert and computer technician. That lasted about half a second before the weight of the situation sank again upon my shoulders. “What was the message?”
Lionel answered, “It was Detective Curtis; he said the new safe house will be ready in the morning, but the next 12 hours are ours.”
“Okay then,” I said. “So… at some point today, in the hour or two we were out of the office, our cable was cut by someone who knew where we were going, depriving us of phone, Internet and HBO. This person also disrupted our cell service, probably a scrambler device set up somewhere in or outside of the house. We could search for it for 2 years and never find it; these things are small.”
“So what do we do?” Tim asked. “Leave the office? Hunker down somewhere else?”
I shook my head. “We’ve hunkered where we’re going to hunker. Leaving only exposes us. The cottage is buttoned up, right?” Tim and Lionel nodded. “So here is probably safest.”
“We need communications, though,” Lionel offered.
I could not argue that.
“Trac Fones, burners, and a wireless mobile provider,” Lionel said. “That at least gets us through the night.”
“Sure,” I said. “But where the hell are we going to get those things at 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve?”
We all looked at each other.
“Wal-Mart,” we said in unison.
“I’ll go, you guys stay here and cover Janice,” I said.
“Don’t be stupid,” Tim interrupted. “The killer could have a high-powered night vision scope trained on the front door right now, waiting for someone to come out; I’ll go.”
“And why you?” I asked.
“Because,” Tim answered, “I can kick the door open, roll across the deck, pop up and dash to the car without twisting a knee or spraining a wrist like you will.”
I was hurt. He was right, but I was hurt. I was in better shape than I was 2 years ago, but not in shape enough to do what Tim just described, which I got the feeling was something he could do without breaking a sweat where I’d probably break a leg.
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re both nuts,” Lionel chirped and snagged the .44 from Tim’s waist. “Protecting Janice is your assignment; your names are on the sign out front, and I’m the cool, expendable black guy. I’ll do it. I can do all that stuff Tim said and I’m black, so I’ll be harder to see.”
I didn’t know if I should laugh.
“You can laugh,” Lionel said.
So I did.
I’m not going to argue,” I said. “But if we make it through all this there might just be a third name on that sign.”
“Dig it,” Tim said, impressed with me a little.
“Take my laptop,” I said, giving Lionel the machine as I stuffed it into the case. “Get on the air and get right back. But do NOT leave the store without making sure you have a connection, got it?”
Lionel nodded. “Got it.”
I clapped him on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
We moved Janice and Klaus to the far back corner of the office, then Tim and I, weapons in hand, framed the door.
“On the count of 3,” I said as Lionel amped himself up. “1… 2…”
“Wait!” Lionel cried.
“What?” I shouted, having a minor coronary.
He held out a hand. “Keys.”
“Jesus Christ,” I hissed. “Nice catch.”
I tossed him my car keys.
“1… 2… 3!”
I whipped open the door, Lionel burst through then rolled. Tim and I followed, eyes trained, waiting for the telltale muzzle flash, but none came. A few seconds later and Lionel was in the car. A few seconds out he was skittering onto Queen Street, gravel spitting.
Tim and I back into the office and shut the door. We were both breathing heavily, Janice looked stricken, Klaus’s face was a dark mask. I panted.
“This is going well so far, don’t you think?”
Nobody laughed at my joke.
“Nothing to do now but wait,” Tim said and plopped into my desk chair. Some nerve.
I killed most of the lights, leaving only the little green lamp on my desk ablaze. Not sure why I bought that particular lamp; probably because subconsciously I’d seen it in just about every movie that ever had a lamp in it. Subliminal marketing. Good stuff.
“I’ll take first watch,” I said.
“I got it,” Tim replied.
Great. Another stupid, pointless argument was brewing over who had more machismo.
“Really,” I countered. “I’ve got it. You get some rest and relieve me in a few hours.”
“Like I’m going to sleep,” Tim replied.
And it was on.
Finally, about 2 minutes and 10 petty insults later, Klaus interrupted us.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Why don’t you work it out over a few fresh baked chocolate cookies and a cup of my famous Egg Nog?”
He placed a try full of the items on my desk. Tim and I stopped arguing but kept a wary eye on each other as we all took a glass and a cookie.
“To Christmas,” Klaus toasted and we all clinked glasses.
The Egg Nog was great, the cookies from a roll of Pillsbury dough but acceptable.
“Merry Christmas,” I said to everyone and we enjoyed a silent moment.
Janice said, “God bless us. Everyone.”
We all chuckled, except for Klaus, who regarded us with a smile that was almost a grimace as it split his face. The light from the lamp caught his glasses and put evil shadow eyebrow arches on his forehead. I wondered why he was looking at us like that. Then, as the room began to spin, I knew it was because he’d just poisoned us.