It’s a homicidal holiday, and only Travis Whitaker can crack the case…
Chapter 8: White Christmas
December 24, around 11pm
The Santa Killer took his time. This was going to be the last of the killing. At least for a while, so he wanted to savor the moment, enjoy it to the fullest. It was slow going, moving all three unconscious bodies into position, but if this was going to be it for a while, he wanted to go out in style.
The woman, Janice Rappaport, the real intended victim in all of this, was easy to move. She had been nearest the bedroom door when she fell asleep; aided by the two dozen horse tranquilizers he’d nicked from Shady Acres Farms the night he’d slaughtered the Rozensweig woman with her own reindeer-clad horses. A Jew! Making money from Christmas! It offended him to the core… He added the sedatives to cookie dough, which had then been turned into a dozen delicious chocolate chip cookies. For good measure he’d crushed and dissolved another half-dozen of the big pills into the egg nog he’d served them.
They would not be waking up for a while. And when they did they’d be long dead.
Tim Demarco, the handsomer and healthier of the pairing of Whitaker & DeMarco Investigations, was much heavier, built almost purely from lean muscle, and it took some doing to get him onto the bed with Janice in a most compromising position.
Finally, he came to Whitaker, who was about the same size as DeMarco, but appreciably heavier, his body carrying the extra fat DeMarco’s did not. Whitaker was certainly not what one would call “overweight”, but he was certainly not an Olympic athlete in the muscle department. And the 30 or so extra pounds he carried made it exponentially difficult for Santa to move him into position.
It was going to be easy, really, to hang the whole thing on Whitaker. When the cops discovered the scene Santa had just set for them, that of a jealous lover walking in on his best friend making love to his older, recently widowed lover, killing them and then himself, but only after putting a couple of rounds into Santa, more commonly known in Cape May as Klaus Nicholas, owner and operator of Winterland, a year-round Christmas shop on Washington Street in Cape May, putting one slug into his leg and another into his shoulder, which would also conveniently mask the wound he’d received there earlier that day from a dying officer Shawn Austin.
Yes, it would be quite easy indeed. Especially after they found the soiled Santa suits used in previous slayings. It would take all of 20 minutes for Klaus to kill everyone, drive to his apartment a few blocks away to get the clothing, and stash it in Whitaker’s office. He would also lead the cops to the secure, password-protected website where Ms Rappaport had posted all of her x-rated videos on. It would take a trained computer CSI about threeminutes to hack into dozens of videos, all of which would serve to further point to Travis Whitaker as a jealous lover scorned, since he was the co-star in one of them.
And, of course, he would destroy the thumb drive Janice had given him, the one that held the only real piece of evidence that would tie Klaus to the crimes.
Yes, it would all come together with a nice little bow. On Christmas Eve, no less!
It was his hope that the causes and circumstances surrounding the deaths would be so obvious as to preclude any autopsy, but regardless, Klaus planned to be in the midst of a long Caribbean vacation by the time that occurred. A vacation that could become permanent, if necessary. He’d socked away enough Winterland cash to live out the rest of his days in comfort and anonymity on some little flea-speck island. He would just need to get through the next few hours to make it all happen.
But, first thing’s first, he needed to kill the three people in the bedroom before any of the rest could happen. He was not looking forward to shooting himself in the leg and shoulder, but he knew it was the only way. And he’d probably end up looking like a hero. He chuckled at the irony.
He went to Travis’ desk, retrieved a .38 snub-nose pistol from his desk drawer and checked it.
It was loaded.
* * *
Lionel Jeffries swung into the nearly empty Rio Grande Wal-Mart parking lot. Usually, the place was a madhouse, sucking up all the dollars that used to go to the mom-and-pops throughout the county. Lionel’s righteous fury was always at its peak when in the Wal-Mart parking lot… just before he went into Wal-Mart to buy reasonably priced goods.
This hypocrisy always made him sweat a little.
But none of that was on his mind tonight as he slid into a parking spot and hopped from Travis’ super-sweet 1972 El Camino and sprinted inside.
The Santa killer had blocked all communication from Travis’ office and he was here to buy a Cricket and get them all back in touch with the outside world. Whatever device the killer had used to scramble their cell service was powerful; Lionel had driven nearly a mile before getting a signal. His first call had been to Detective Ike Curtis, but had gone right to voicemail, as did the 15 other attempts he’d made directly after.
Either the detective wasn’t answering (not likely), had his phone turned off (even less likely) or his phone had been tampered with, as well. They already knew the killer had intimate knowledge of their plans to protect Janice Rappaport, so he should not have been surprised at this revelation.
Of course, until three days ago he’d just been a mason, a damn bricklayer, and now here he was trying to save some human lives. He had to admit he found it rather invigorating. He was going to miss it when it was all over.
Finally he was in the electronics department. They must have had a Christmas skeleton crew on as there was not an employee in sight. He wanted to call out but he was out of breath; it was roughly a quarter-mile from the parking lot to the back of the store and Lionel had sprinted all the way. He grabbed a water from a nearby Coke cooler and drank some down, trying to calm himself down.
This done, he took a deep breath, and once again looked around for help. What he saw almost made him laugh out loud, until he took a moment to think about it.
Black man. 11 o’clock Christmas Eve. Sprints into Wal-Mart. Run directly to electronics.
So he should not have been shocked to see a few store employees huddled behind the aged security guard. The aged security guard with his taser out and sparking menacingly.
“H… hold it right there,” the old man said, panting, more scared of Lionel than Lionel was of him.
“Tell him, Gus!” said one of the women behind him.
Lionel spread his hands. “This is a misunderstanding. I just need a mobile…”
“Eep!” the old man cried and the taser nodes shot out at Lionel.
* * *
Detective Ike Curtis was on edge. It had been a hell of a day at the end of a hell of a week. That the Santa killer remained at large after four days was not overly burdensome; most serial killers operated for weeks, months, years at a time before being killed or captured. No, what bothered him most was the loss of one of his best men, Shawn Austin, who had been taken by surprise, but had at least been able to save one of the two people the CMPD had been charged with protecting.
He sat in his squad car outside the new safe house in Cape May Point, near the lighthouse, as his team swept it and reinforced it. They were moving quite a bit ahead of schedule. Austin’s death had motivated twice as many people as needed to volunteer their time that evening; the house would be ready by about 2am. He would call Whitaker and his team to inform them, except he had not been able to reach them for the last hour, nor had they reached out to him.
He had told them to keep radio silence, so they had probably just turned their cell devices off. He wasn’t worried.
But now it was urgent he reach them, so he opened a web browser on his fancy new iPhone, which he’d gotten last Christmas and was just now getting comfortable with, and brought up Whitaker & Demarco Investigations from whence he could email them. The little clock symbol appeared telling him the page was loading. It spun there. Spun again. And spun some more. A minute later he got a message telling him the web page was unavailable. Three more times he attempted to load the page only to get the same message.
Now he was worried.
He stepped from his squad car, lit a cigarette, and paced.
A plainclothes stepped from the house.
“How’s it coming?” Curtis asked.
“We’re close,” the cop replied.
Curtis nodded. This was a moment of truth. He wanted to head over to Travis’ office and check in, see why the hell they were being so incognito. But he did not want to leave the new safe house until it was 100% secure. 200%, if possible.
And all of it, all of this, reeked of the machinations of the killer; distract and destroy, as he’d done several times before.
He made up his mind in that moment.
I’m staying here, he thought. He had no choice.
“Shit!” he cried and slammed his fist on the car roof, forgetting it held his precious and very expensive iPhone.
“Shit…” he muttered as he laid the several pieces of phone on the roof.
He tossed the cigarette and tried to put the delicate device back together, with relative success, when something caught his eye.
A small metal disc, out of place with the rest of the components, stood out. It did not seem to fit anywhere inside the device, nor did it bear the omnipresent Apple logo. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he turned the phone on; surprisingly it worked. He loaded the web browser again and surfed to Whitaker & DeMarco Investigations. It loaded in about three seconds. At that time the phone began pinging as his voice and text message boxes filled.
“Don’t tell me…”
Knowing exactly what would happen, he placed the small metal disc on the phone and hit refresh. In 30 seconds he got an error message, “Page Will Not Load.”
“Shit!” he yelled again ran into the house. Someone had jammed his phone, and the choices were few. “Genaro!” he shouted from the foyer.
Officer Tony Genaro, Shawn Austin’s surviving partner, stormed down the stairs, red-eyes rimmed black.
Detective Ike Curtis collared him. “I have to go. Now. Do NOT follow me, do you understand? Your job right now is to watch over this place and everyone in it. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand!” Curtis bellowed, bringing all the work going on around him to a stop.
Genaro nodded firmly. “Yes, sir.”
Curtis lightly slapped his cheek. “Good man. Believe me when I say this is the most important thing you can do right now. Lock this place down. I’m following another lead. If I don’t come back…”
“I understand, sir.” Genaro said. “Go do what you have to do.”
Curtis nodded and dashed back out the door.
Tony called out, “All right everybody, on me!”
All the cops and agents in the house circled around him.
“Here’s what we’re going to do…”
Detective Ike Curtis wheeled out of the driveway and towards Cape May proper like the devil himself was following.
* * *
Lionel looked up from the floor; the taser nodes had latched into the display case behind him, narrowly missing him.
“Are you okay?” the old security guard called.
Lionel did his best to raise his hands from his prone position. “Yes! I’m fine! Please don’t shoot me!”
“Nononono,” the old man said and helped him up. “You’re okay, Lionel. My finger just slipped is all. I am mighty gratified I didn’t zap you with this stupid thing.”
Lionel got to his feet and looked at the old man. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
The old man clapped him on the shoulder. “Sure do, you and your granddaddy laid my driveway down about 20 years ago. Ain’t had a crack nor weed yet. You boys did good work.”
Lionel arched an eyebrow.
The old man swallowed hard. “Boys, like good old boys, not like… you know…”
Lionel waved him off. “Forget about it.” He looked at the now-confused looking store employees. “Can one of you help me?”
A heavyset woman of about 40 stepped forward. “I guess so, what do you need?”
“Wireless internet,” Lionel answered them and showed the case slung over his shoulder. “For my laptop.”
The cashier smiled and answered, “Sure, everything we got is in the case…” her smile fell “behind you.”
Lionel turned. The case behind him had been struck directly by the taser and its contents lay melting and smoldering, having been cooked by 10,000 volts of electricity.
“Shit,” Lionel hissed.
“Wait,” another employee, a greasy teenager, said. “I think we have one or two in the back, never picked up on layway, I’ll go check. If you can pay for it you can have it. Cut-off was 10pm tonight.”
“Please,” Lionel said. “And hurry, it’s an emergency.
“Okay,” the teenager answered. “But there’s a lot of shit back there, it’s going to take five ot ten minutes, at least.”
Lionel replied, “Fine, just be as fast as you can. Please.”
With nothing left to do, he paced. He paced a biq square around the center of the large, warehouse-sized building, which took him within eyeshot of the little Subway restaurant near the entrance. There was nothing remarkable about it, except he Wifi Hotspot.
He sprinted back to the electronics department, threw the laptop case up onto the glass counter, and took out the machine. It took a precious few seconds to warm up, but when it did, the little wireless indicator in the keyboard went from orange to blue.
He opened a Google Chrome browser and went to the address Travis had given him, Janice’s secure site. He entered the password; XXX-XXX-XXX. (She really was a horny old broad.) Immediately he had access to all the documents she had hidden there; the x-rated videos and, most importantly, the emails and site applications for the new Convention Center.
Absently he sifted through the documents as he waited for the clerk to return.
The emails she’d saved had been threatening to a degree, but nothing to make one think an insane murderer was about to rampage through the city council. He opened the “Applications” folder, which was split into “Accepted” and “Rejected” briefcases, and perused. Nothing stood out in the “Accepted” bin, so he opened the “Rejected.” Again, nothing jumped out.
Until it did.
Hidden among the over 200 rejected license applications sat this little gem; Santaville. The signature on the application was from a Claudio Nicolo.
What was it Klaus Nicholas had said a couple of nights before? He was from Italian lineage? Claudio Nicolo. Klaus Nicholas. Santaville. Winterland.
It was too much to be a coincidence.
“Got him!” Lionel yelled as the store employees began looking at him edgily again. He said to them, “It’s okay, I’m helping with… just… it’s okay, all right? Somebody go tell that kid to hurry, I have to get the hell out of here.”
The heavyset woman and her heavyset friend lurched off to find the greasy teenager as Lionel opened his cell and rang Travis. Straight to voicemail. Still incommunicado. Again he tried Detective Curtis’ phone, but it, too, went straight to voicemail.
Lionel paced and cursed modern technology; for all its wonder it was either never there when you needed it or almost certain to trigger the end of the world via mistaken nuclear launch or robot apocalypse.
Finally, the clerk returned, panting.
“Here you go,” he said. “It’s a Cricket. They’re great.”
“Awesome, thanks,” Lionel replied and threw a $100 bill at the kid. “Keep the change.”
“Hey, thanks!” the kid hollered as Lionel left. “Merry Christmas!’
“If only,” Lionel said to himself. “If only.”
He got into the car and drove like hell, praying he’d make it back in time. Sure he wouldn’t.
* * *
Klaus Nicholas popped three painkillers into his mouth and chased them with a cold glass of water. The effort of moving his three unconscious victims with one working arm had taken the wind out of his sails. He fought back the dizziness and nausea, willed himself forward. In a minute it would all be over and he would be free and clear.
Drops of sweat fell from his full white beard and splashed onto the metal sink. No matter what kind of pep talk he gave himself, it seemed his body wasn’t listening. If he did not act now he likely would not get another chance.
So he pushed himself away from the sink, grabbed the .38 from the breakfast nook, and went to the small bedroom where Travis, Tim and Janice awaited their fates.
He took a deep breath, raised his good arm, steadied himself, and took aim at Janice Rappaport.
And it was over.
* * *
Lionel jammed it down Route 9. It was almost midnight on Christmas Eve so the roads were empty. He sped as fast as he safely could handle. If the cops chased him, oh well. He was leading them to Travis’ office, which is exactly where he wanted a bunch of cops at the moment.
But no cops followed as he tore down Route 9 and over the Cape May Bridge. He kept it over 50 as he headed down Lafayette Street. Normally he would have had to go over to Washington Street and enter Queen from there, but the moment was not normal, so he flew down Lafayette and entered Queen the wrong way.
He skidded into the driveway, threw the El Camino into park, and threw open the door.
He pulled the .44 Travis had given him from the glove compartment and stepped into the driveway. He needed an approach. He eyed the deck, the side windows, the roof.
Then it happened.
The shots rang out, cracking through the wind and snow, the dark office strobed, throwing brief shadows over the ground.
“No!” Lionel yelled and decided on a direct approach.
He sprinted up onto the deck, threw open the large front door and rolled into the office behind Travis’ desk.
“DROP IT!” he screeched, his voice cracking with anger and sadness.
“Okay,” Detective Ike Curtis replied. “But I’d appreciate if you’d stop pointing that at me.”
Stunned, Lionel stood. Behind Curtis, on the floor of the small bedroom, lay the body of Klaus Nicholas.
Lionel stepped from behind the desk. “I didn’t see your car in the drive.”
Curtis replied, “I parked at the end of Queen, snuck up from there. You should have seen my unit.”
Lionel replied, sheepishly, “I… I did not enter Queen Street in a legal fashion.”
Curtis chucked his shoulder. “We’ll let this one slide, I think.”
“Are they okay?” Lionel asked.
“I think so, they’re all breathing, I was about to call in an EMS when you came barreling in. Nice moves, by the way.”
“High school football. And please, don’t let me keep you.”
Curtis took out his phone, held the six or seven pieces together with a “Don’t ask” look to Lionel, and called in an ambulance.
* * *
For not the first time following one of my cases, I woke up in the hospital. It had been a few days since Detective Curtis took down the Santa Killer, and he was reaping the rightful media praise he’d earned, but was highly uncomfortable with. Tim’s friend Lionel Jeffries was also receiving some recognition for his role in the story, which went from suspect to hero in just a few shorts days. Me? I was mostly receiving phone calls and emails remarking how lucky I was to be alive, which was how my cases normally ended up. Only this time I had Tim to share that with, which was nice.
See, usually it’s him that saves me from certain death and walks away with the glory, the fame and the girl. However, this time both of us were about to meet our maker when justice stepped in. He was not used to being on this end of the pity stick and it seemed to be nicely humbling him.
“Is this what you feel like all the time?” He’d asked the day before, somehow managing to make me feel worse.
“Well,” I’d replied, “not all the time.”
Point was, while I was super-glad we were both still alive, it was my hope that this little brush with mortality would serve to make Tim a little more appreciative of all he had.
“I have got to get out of here and get laid,” he told me.
Perhaps the appreciation would have to wait.
Anyway, we were all fine, but full of enough horse tranquilizer to fell a… horse, so they kept us a few days for observation. In that time the picture became a bit clearer.
Klaus Nicholas, under his birth name of Claudio Nicolo, had applied for a store license in the new Convention Center, believing that, as a local, he’d be a shoo-in.
He was not.
Adding insult to this injury, and videotaped for posterity, was an excruciatingly awkward encounter between Klaus and Janice Rappaport that had ended rather… prematurely.
Apparently this had been enough to push him over the edge. Feeling as though the city council had screwed out of his rightful spot in the center, he began to exact his revenge. And almost succeeded.
In the end, Janice did as she promised and deleted the videos. As far as we knew. But who could blame her if she kept them? She went home and set to the task of rebuilding her life and the city council.
A day after that they released Tim and I. Detective Curtis and Lionel drove up to get us. They met us outside as the candy stripers wheeled us out. Of course, on the way down Tim got both their phone numbers.
“How you feeling?” Lionel asked as we got out of the chairs.
“Pretty good,” Tim answered.
“Not bad,” I echoed. “In desperate need of a McDonald’s cheeseburger or three, but otherwise okay.”
“Good,” Lionel answered.
Slowly we made our way to Curtis’ squad car. They helped us in, which I appreciated because, all bravado aside, I was still pretty shaky.
Once inside Curtis turned to us in the back seat and handed me an envelope.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Curtis said nothing, so I opened it; the envelope was stuffed with 10, 20 and 50 dollar bills.
“Little collection I took from the boys in blue,” Curtis informed me. “To show their appreciation in tracking down Austin’s killer.”
I argued, “You and Lionel did that, I just…” I looked at Tim, “We just shook the bushes.”
“Right,” Curtis said. “Which is what needed to be done. And don’t try to give the money back. You know how cops are. Give it back they’ll kick your ass.”
I flipped through the cash. “It’s too much.”
Curtis shrugged. “So buy yourself a new TV or something.”
“Nah,” I said. “I’ll use it on a new sign.”
Tim asked, “Why do we need a new sign? The one we have is fine.”
“Because,” I answered, “we have to put Lionel’s name on it. Whitaker, DeMarco & Jeffries. Has a nice ring, no? We’ll be like the A-team.”
“Why, because I’m black?” Lionel asked.
I grew flustered. “No, because… well, what I mean is…”
“Relax,” he said and extended his hand. “You guys really could use a cool black guy.”
“Tell me about it,” Tim agreed.
“I thought I was the cool one?” I asked as I shook Lionel’s hand.
“Not in a million years,” Tim replied.
“Then which one am I?”
Lionel said, “You’re the good looking one.”
“No,” Tim argued. “That’s me.”
“Come on, I’m good looking…”
“Not as good looking as me…”
“None of you is as pretty as I am…”
And on it went.