Authors: Chris Frank,Skip Press
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #mystery, #Hard-Boiled
To Lisa, Tanya, and our brood,
who have made this journey worth the effort.
Chapter One: Up A Tree
His head was about to explode, but not from the pain. His heart was pounding so hard the adrenaline shifted his blood into overdrive.
The fucking thrill of it all
. He was really doing it. After years of dreams, nightmares, and fantasies, he was finally doing what He never thought he had the balls to do: he was killing someone. And it was proving to be far more cumbersome than he had planned. It was easy enough to capture the man, but once the drugs kicked in on the victim, it was like leading around a large dopey infant. Getting him into the suit was worse. The thick jacket, the tall leather boots with the buckles, the long white beard. His attention to detail would make this story sizzle in the press. And wasn’t that what it was all about, here in L.A.?
His rope and knife were ready. He had to do this as fast as possible, to not attract attention. It was the middle of the night, an empty suburban street, but there were always eyes watching somewhere. After five minutes it was done. He stood back to bask in the glow of his work. He smiled, not able to suppress the pride that burst from his soul.
Merry Christmas and take your seats, fuckheads
, he thought.
The show is about to begin!
Day One: 8:30 a.m.
Weatherwise, Christmas day in Southern California was pretty much like all the other days in Southern California…picture perfect. Lisa Klein did not celebrate Christmas, but she did enjoy the day off from work. Lisa was twenty-nine years old and an assistant producer for a local news station that, in her opinion, spent too much time on celebrity nonsense stories. She got out of bed early to take advantage of the warm sunshine and get some exercise. The sense of freedom was thrilling. Running down the quiet suburban block in West Covina, she watched the tract homes shimmer in the early morning light rising over the distant snow-capped peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains. Not a competitive runner, Lisa ran to fit into her size two jeans. She lived on Cherry Place, one of the “Fruit” streets so popular with the young professionals who wanted to be close to Hollywood but could not afford to live there. It was a quiet neighborhood, more so today as families stayed locked inside their homes, tearing open gifts they couldn’t afford.
All in the name of Jesus
, she thought. Lisa searched her iPod for something to get her through the daily three miles at a nice steady pace. She settled on NWA. Something about pounding footsteps timed to violence-soaked music spoke to her in a visceral way.
As Lisa turned the corner at Pear, the rising sun shone bright in her eyes. She cursed herself for forgetting her sunglasses then adapted by running along the curb so that the overgrown sycamores gave her relief from the glare. Several of the trees bore red and green bulbs while others were draped in garland. People decorated the trees on the “Fruit” streets. If it made them happy, so be it.
As she approached the last home on Pear, through the glare she saw what appeared to be a large effigy of the jolly man in the red suit swinging gently from a tree. Lisa could bear the lights and tinsel in the boughs, but life-size imitations of Santa and his magical flying reindeer were a little over the top. For Christ’s sake, you don’t see a six-foot statue of Elijah during Passover. But as she approached Santa, she realized there was something a little ‘off’ with the decoration.
Lisa stood puzzled, her mind racing to process exactly what it was she was looking at. Why was the branch that was holding the rope bending almost to the point of breaking? Why was Santa hanging by the neck with his pants drenched in urine? The answer hit her like an avalanche.
This was not a Christmas ornament. This was a dead body.
Lisa screamed. It just came out like an involuntary muscle reflex. She couldn’t look away from the lifeless eyes protruding ominously from their sockets, tongue clamped between clinched teeth. Her first instinct was to grab at the man’s legs and try to get him down, but unfortunately she could not reach that high. She patted on her jacket pocket and cursed – she’d left her cell phone at home! So she did the next best thing and ran as fast as she could to the nearest house, screaming for help.
If Lisa Klein didn’t celebrate Christmas before today, chances were, she never would.
Day One: 8:45 a.m.
Jim Jovian celebrated Christmas despite having no wife, no children, or any living relatives. He got a tree, put up lights, and went through the motions of the season; it cheered him somehow. Now the only thing standing in the way of his solitary Christmas nirvana of cold beer and holiday bowl games on TV was the fifteen minutes left of his shift, those last few minutes that always felt like an eternity. Christmas Eve on call at the West Covina police department was an easy gig. All the other officers had wives and kids, so Jim always took the shift.
He was thirty-five years old, prematurely graying at the temples and thinning at the crown. He had almost gotten married once before chickening out, kicking to the curb someone he eventually realized was the perfect woman for him. By the time he came to his senses, she was scooped up by another suitor and whisked away to suburbia. He repeatedly told himself that it was probably for the best, given that a cop’s life is fraught with danger. Now she would never hear the doorbell ring at midnight with news that her beloved was cut down in a hail of bullets. Not that bullets rained through the air that often in West Covina, but in greater Los Angeles they certainly did.
One of the other officers had invited him to join a family turkey dinner, but Jim declined, wanting to avoid the small talk, the screaming kids and the tryptophan. Some people had a hard time comprehending that Jim liked being alone.
What little paperwork had been generated from the previous night was done. There were fourteen minutes to go on his shift so he reviewed the calls that had come in. Some teenage kids were making a ruckus, drinking beer and throwing rocks at stop signs. A husband and wife domestic dispute that necessitated a police counseling session. And then crazy Alice Edwards, making her weekly complaint, this time reporting that a drunk dressed as Santa and his buddy had leaned against her Honda Civic, which set the car alarm blaring. All routine, all boring, and all neatly typed for the next guy up.
Two minutes to go! Jim blinked the boredom from his eyes and rose from his desk. He took a quick look around and turned towards the locker room. Before he took his first step, the light on his phone began to blink again.
“Christ,” he said aloud.
He looked at the blinking light. He had to answer it. It was his job. If it was crazy Alice Edwards again, he was going to lose his mind. Could he kill her, and get away with it?
He took the phone off the receiver and brought it to his ear.
“West Covina police department, Officer Jovian. How can I help you?”
He stood there for a second, listening to a frantic voice on the phone. After the woman on the other end of the line took a breath, he spoke.
“Ma’am, you are aware that making a fake call to the police is a crime?”
The woman exploded on the other end, so loud that Jim pulled the phone from his ear.
“Let me get this straight. You’ve found a dead Santa Claus, hanging from a tree?”
He listened and nodded.
“I’ll be right there.”
Jim sighed as he hung up. The woman sounded young, but not teenage. Something in her voice sure seemed legitimate. He had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a year that a lazy Christmas got away from him.
Day One: 9:00 a.m.
The curtains were drawn tightly. Despite the early hour and the bright sunshine outside, the room was black as any starless night. He lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling, tired, but for the first time in a long while, he felt alive. It had been a long night and he knew he needed to get some sleep, but there was no way; his heart was still pounding. Flashes of the man’s dead face and the way it made him feel was thrilling to his core. This was
the right thing to do
. There was no doubt about that now, after last night. And so much more needed to be done. He could not lose focus. If he did this right, his name would be remembered forever. He would be like other legends: Zodiac, Manson, and the Fort Hood Killer. Each one of them was a dangerous immortal in the minds of mere men. He would be one of them, and people would pay for ridiculing him, for not taking him seriously, for pointing fingers when he walked into the room, for laughing at his ideas that were now coming to fruition. They would all pay eventually. He giggled at the far-reaching scope of his plan. He never hesitated at enjoying his own brilliance.
They’ll take me seriously now
, he thought.
They won’t have a choice
! Still lost in the fantasy of his macabre vision, he reached for the bottle of pills on the table near his bed and swallowed down a handful.
Keep focused, suppress the pain, and the world is yours.
Day One: 9:10 a.m.
Ho, ho, ho. Jim couldn’t help but think it, standing there beneath the hanging corpse of the pungent Saint Nick. He had seen corpses before, but they were usually the end result of gang violence, Los Angeles’ peculiar method for thinning its young minority herd. He had never before seen the product of a hangman’s noose, but it was the smell that was overwhelming. The stench of death intermingled with the acrid odor of urine singed his nostrils. It didn’t help that for the rest of his life, whenever he thought of Christmas or saw Santa, this image would rise like the phoenix in his mind.
The crime scene investigators were cordoning off the perimeter, preparing to collect the endless photos, traces, and fingerprints. The forensic guys were the stars now, and had been since those shows popped up on television. On the Vegas version of
, a redhead had turned to science after a career as a stripper. Really? Jim blamed O.J. Simpson for popularizing such notions; if the knucklehead cops in Brentwood had not been filmed, contaminating the evidence on Bundy for the entire world to see, no one would give a shit about forensics and the evidence shows would not exist. Fucking O.J. had changed everyone’s life for the worse. Thank God karma got his ass in the end. It usually did, one way or another.
Jim’s first order of business was to talk to the young lady who discovered the body. He found Lisa Klein sitting on the front steps of 2347 Pear Street, a blanket around her shoulders, talking rapidly into a cell phone. Most people would have been shaken after discovering a urine-soaked corpse, but she sounded all business.
“Listen, Milt. Just get a camera down here right now,” she demanded. “I know it’s fucking Christmas, but there’s a dead Santa
hanging from a goddamn tree and we can be the first ones with the story
! If you move, we can get the shots before they cut him down.”
Lisa looked up and saw Jim standing there patiently.
“Okay, there’s a cop here. Get your ass out of bed and get down here, now!”
Lisa Klein clicked her phone shut as Officer Jovian introduced himself.
“Ms. Klein. I’m Officer Jovian. We spoke on the phone.”
He couldn’t help but notice she was rather attractive. From what fragments of the conversation he had overheard, she was probably in the entertainment industry.
“So you’re the asshole who thought I was a crank caller?”
, he decided. Jim looked down at his hands while thinking what to say, but all he could do is smile.
“Sorry about that. We get crank calls all the time.”
Lisa let him off the hook, extending her hand. Jim hesitated for a moment and shook her hand reluctantly.
“Well, Officer Jovian. It’s nice to put a face to a voice.”
Jim smiled again.
“All right then. Let’s see if I got your story correct. You are out for a morning run, you turn down…” He looked at his notes.
“Pear Street… and you look up and see the dead gentleman hanging from the tree.”