Michael Haskins

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Chris Knopf's ICE CAP

My friend and fellow writer Chris Knopf will release his new book, Ice Cap, in a few days and I thought I'd share chapter one and a review of two. I am sure you'll find them interesting.
 * * *
Publishers Weekly,

Ice Cap
Chris Knopf. Minotaur, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-00517-5
At the start of Knopf’s breezy third Southampton mystery featuring defense attorney Jackie Swaitkowski (after 2011’s Bad Bird), client Franco Raffini summons Jackie during a winter storm to the house of Tad Buczek, a relative of hers by marriage, who’s lying dead under a pergola. That Franco, previously convicted of manslaughter, admits he messed up the crime scene by moving the body only adds to Jackie’s doubts about his innocence. When Franco is arrested and charged with second-degree murder, Jackie is determined to win the case against her client, despite threats from a couple of toughs for her to lose it. A familiar cast aids her, including boyfriend Harry Goodlander, Sam Acquillo (the star of Black Swan and four other mysteries), and computer geek Randall Dodge. A host of Polish relatives (by marriage) and Tad’s imported wife, Katarzina, provide comedy and tragedy. Atrocious winter weather, Franco’s aversion to telling all, and Tad’s deep secrets keep the outcome in doubt. Whether Jackie or Sam takes the lead, Knopf’s ensemble mysteries are good entertainment.

Book Review: ICE CAP by Chris Knopf

Jackie Swaitkowski is an attorney practicing law in the Hamptons of Long Island.  Her client is accused of murdering her late husband’s uncle … and nobody wants to believe her client’s innocent.
The worst winter on record dumps endless snow on the Hamptons, which hampers our heroine’s attempts to discover who really committed the murder.  Of course, Jackie’s the only person who believes Franco Raffinni is innocent and she really has to work at it.  Also hampering her efforts to solve the mystery are members of her husband’s family and the Polish-American community in which they live, the victim’s widow, and emissaries of a local mob boss whose visits become increasingly more threatening and violent.
As a former resident of Long Island, I found myself skimming over the numerous references to the Hamptons; however, Jackie’s clever, witty, and entertaining personality MORE than made up for that minor flaw and I certainly didn’t skim anywhere else!  I laughed out loud numerous times as I read this book in one sitting.  Knopf does an excellent job writing from the perspective of his female character and I’ll be checking out more of Jackie’s adventures.
You shouldn’t miss this one.

Okay, now for chapter one!

Chapter 1

            It would have been the blizzard of the century if a bigger one hadn’t hit a few weeks later.  But for the people of the Hamptons marooned in the off-off season of mid-January, it was like we’d been plucked from the end of Long Island and dropped into the arctic circle. 
            For me, it was another opportunity to praise my Volvo station wagon, both steadfast and true, no matter how little maintenance or care I remembered to bestow upon it.  That evening the biggest challenge was identifying the car among the other giant heaps of rapidly building snow in the parking lot behind my apartment.  I was only out there  because I got a call from one of my clients, Franklin Delano Raffinni – an ex-investment banker who’d served time for killing his girlfriend’s husband with a rotisserie skewer before the husband could kill him with a steak knife.      
            “You gotta get over here, Jackie,” he said via cell phone, the words barely audible over the wind noise. 
            “Not the best time,” I said.
            “Don’t tell anybody anything till you get here.  I’m serious.  You’ll see why.”
            Another complicating factor was my complete lack of personal preparedness.  Snow was hardly unheard of in the Hamptons, but nothing like this.  The best I could do was cowboy boots, black leather gloves that went nearly to the elbow (bought for more heated circumstances), leotards, jeans, and lots of layers under my orange barn jacket. 
            I thought I’d overdone it until I hit the outside air and felt like the skin on my face was being cryogenically removed.  I found the car and dug my way to the driver’s side door with an old aluminum fry pan.  Inside the car somewhere was an ice scraper.  From the driver’s seat, I climbed into the back and dug the scraper out from under a stack of file folders, a pair of jumper cables, a box of Kleenex, a bird cage, a beach umbrella last used five months before, golf clubs never used and other unrelated items whose origins had been lost in the mists of time. 
            When I finally  finished clearing about two feet of snow off the car with the fry pan and scraper, another inch or two had already started to form.  The engine had been running, however, so the defrosters and wipers kept the glass clear.  The greater issue was the most fundamental – could I really drive in this stuff?
            Even if snow plows had been as prevalent in Long Island as they were in Buffalo, there was no way to keep up with the snowfall.  So the only choice wasn’t driving over, it was driving through. 
            At least  I’d been taught by my father how to handle a car in the snow.  He had his faults, but denying his daughter instruction in the many things he thought her too stupid to master on her own was not one of them.  So whenever a snow storm hit the area, however meager the accumulation, we’d venture forth in one of his ungainly American land yachts for a lesson, usually delivered in harsh and condescending tones, just to assure that even an effort to preserve my safety could be remembered with a tinge of hollow disappointment.
            The first trick was to go easy on the gas pedal, refraining at all times from spinning the wheels, a circumstance from which my father impressed upon me was virtually impossible to recover.  That day, I thought the whole thing was impossible, so I was more surprised than triumphant when I felt the car move forward out of the parking spot, across the lot and out into the street. 
            From there it was a short hop to Montauk Highway, the main east-west thoroughfare that connected a string of villages that comprised the Hamptons, and thus the only road the authorities were committed to keeping as clear as possible.  This meant that successive plow passes during the day had formed a small mountain ridge at the end of my side street.  As my father had taught me, this circumstance called for an opposing strategy: drop to a lower gear and hit the gas. 
            I felt it was every bit as unlikely that I’d be able to smash my way through a wall of snow as it was getting underway in the first place, which is probably why I didn’t consider the consequences of success until I found myself in the middle of Montauk Highway, perpendicular to the flow of traffic and directly in the path of a very large pickup.  I cranked the wheel hard to the right and kept power to the wheels, allowing me to spin the rear of the car into the opposite snow bank, just barely avoiding an ugly collision.  For its part, the truck swerved a few times, the edge of the yellow plow whispering past the side of the Volvo, and then swinging back into the mass of snow that entombed a row of cars along the curbside. 
            “Idiot,” I said to myself, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I was now irrevocably lodged inside the packed snow. 
            I looked in my mirror and saw a woman in heavy coveralls, about the color of my barn jacket, jump out of the truck and slip-slide toward me through the swirling haze.  I rolled down the passenger side mirror and prepared myself for a well-deserved rebuke.
            “Are you alright?” she asked, looking anxiously through the open window.  Her long brown hair, streaked with grey, was salted with snowflakes, and her angular, dark face was lit up with concern.
            “I should be asking you,” I said.  “I did a really dumb thing.”
            “Everybody’s dumb in a snowstorm.  You stuck?”
            “Oh, yeah.  How would you feel about pulling me out?”
            “I’d feel fine about it,” she said.  “Don’t go anywhere till I get back.”
            She jogged back to her truck, jumped in, did a three-point turn and drove a short way past me.  Then she got a chain out of the truck bed and hooked us up.  She gestured for me to roll down my window again. 
            “Just help me along with some gentle acceleration.  No stunt driving necessary.”
            “What’s your name?” I asked.
            “Dayna Red.  I tell people it’s a house paint.  Nobody believes me.”
            I told her my name and profession – counsel to the region’s impoverished miscreants, or merely misled, one of whom had sent me an urgent call, which I felt irresistibly compelled to answer. 
            “Not in this weather you aren’t,” she said. 
            “What if I hired you?” I asked her.
            “Plow job?”
            “Escort.  I need to get over to Seven Ponds in Southampton.”
            She leaned into the car, bringing some more of the storm with her.  A white dust started to form on the accretion of papers, soda cans and empty cigarette packs that filled the passenger seat.
            “I just came from over there.  They haven’t plowed yet.”
            I wrote the address on a handy piece of paper.
            “You know where that is?” I asked her.
            She studied the paper. 
            “Sure.  Tad Buczek’s place.  Metal Madness.”
            Metal wasn’t the only thing mad about Tad, but it figured largely.  Like my late husband’s family, the honorable Swaitkowskis, Tad’s family had made the calculation that tens of millions of dollars in hand from real estate developers was better than bushels of potatoes you had to go to the trouble of growing, harvesting and selling into a saturated market.  Tad’s share of the bounty was substantial, enough for him to retain fifteen acres of mixed fields and woodlands for himself, on which he established one of the more irregular local homesteads, even by the rigorous standards of the Hamptons. 
            Always a connoisseur of large agricultural  machinery, Tad harnessed  his new wealth to embark on a major acquisition program, focusing on earth moving equipment, until his property was littered with backhoes and bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks and articulated haulers.  Zoning disputes quickly erupted, led by some of Tad’s new neighbors, the wealthy owners of colonial-style and post modern mini-mansions that rose up out his family’s former potato farm.  
            Tad eventually reached a settlement, that in my former life as a real estate lawyer I helped draft, which required him to store his earthmover collection within a pair of huge pre-fabbed steel buildings, designed to enclose things like assembly lines and commercial aircraft.  The deal was sealed when he sited the buildings within a grove of pine trees deep inside the property, thus rendering the entire operation essentially invisible. 
            What his opponents hadn’t figured on was Tad’s purpose in acquiring the earth moving equipment in the first place, which wasn’t to simply warehouse a fleet of lumbering machines, but rather to apply them to the purpose for which they’d been originally engineered. 
            Moving earth.    
            The land cleared of the offending eyesores was soon in the midst of a massive transformation.  Out of acres of flat, unobstructed potato fields grew huge hills, plateaus, pyramids and berms that circled into themselves like ancient fortifications.  Much of this required massive infusions of fill, which meant a steady procession of dump trucks importing sand, gravel and rough soil from as far away as North Jersey. 
            Another flood of lawsuits resulted, but there was little the neighbors could do about this one.   There was no law or statute prohibiting the physical alteration of a person’s private land, provided it had no negative impact on the adjacent environment, water supply or septic systems.  Offenses Tad studiously avoided.
            Better yet, the work was done in fairly short order, barely six months, after which Tad set to growing grass and planting trees and bushes on his freshly terra-formed estate, softening the edges of the artificial earthen shapes until they took on the character of a naturally molded landscape, one of such verdant beauty that any complaint seemed fatuous at best.
            The subsequent good will helped Tad weather the next explosion of outrage.

#   #   #   #  #   #  #   #  #    #

            “I’ll  have to put the plow down when we turn on David White’s Lane,” said Dayna, after pulling me out of the snow bank and walking back to my car.  She asked for my cell phone number.  “I’ll call you and we’ll keep the connection open.  Keep it on speaker.  Better than a walkie-talkie.”
            The snowfall might have abated some as the sky above darkened to a deep, sooty grey.  But snow still filled the air, blown into a chaotic frenzy by the increasing wind.  That was one of the costs of living close to the ocean.  Whatever lousy weather you could have out here, the wind always made it that much lousier. 
            Almost a half hour later we reached the intersection of Montauk Highway and David White’s Lane.  I asked her to give me a few minutes to clean the ice pack off my wipers and the congealed snow and road grit out of the grill.  It took longer than I hoped, hampered as I was by icy needles being driven into my face.  I knew there were buildings on three corners of the intersection, but now with night completely settled in, they only looked like ghostly shapes within the blustery haze.  I made it back into the car thinking it may not ever be safe to emerge again.
            “They’re saying it’s the blizzard of the century,” said Dayna over my exotic new smart phone, a type that provides everything short of teleportation.  “Could get three feet, not including drifts.  The governor’s shut down the whole island.  Non-essential travel’s forbidden.”
            “Sorry if this gets you in trouble.”
            “I’m essential, honey.  Which means you’re also protected.  It’s like diplomatic immunity.”
            “I know the cops around here pretty well,” I said.  “Good luck with that one.”
            Even with her heavy four-wheel-drive truck, knobby tires and snow plow it was slow going.  Every so often the load in front of the plow grew so large she had to increase the angle of the blade and shove it off to the side.  Then we’d back up a little and take off again, her easing along what she hoped was the road surface, now completely obliterated by a blanket of deep snow, and me transfixed by the two red lights on her tailgate and the pale light over the truck’s license plate, which read “Wood Chick”.
            I never would have made it without her.  No way, no how. 
            “Wood Chick, you’re the aces,” I told her over the phone, deciphering the vanity license plate, WOODCHIK .
            “Now I’m embarrassed.”
            “Don’t be,” I said.  “I’m just trying to be nice.”
            “My own fault for plastering that name right on my ass.  With encouragement from people I’d be better off ignoring.”
            “I know people like that.”
            “Tad’s place is getting closer,” she said.  “During the day we’d have a visual by now.”
            She meant we could have seen one of the towering metal sculptures that comprised the loony installation Tad had created and named Metal Madness.  The sculptures,  mounted atop Tad’s ersatz mountains, were built of twisted sheets of steel welded into abstract shapes that thrust high into the sky.  And consequently, the latest cause for neighborhood angst and costly legal maneuvering, which I was grateful to leave behind, safe within my current career as a full-time criminal attorney.
            Seven Ponds wasn’t even a place name, it was just a few roads of the same or similar names that criss-crossed a semi-rural swath north of Southampton Village.  And by my reckoning, there was only one pond named Seven Ponds, which must have been either an act of clever misdirection, or the imaginative product of some ancient real estate broker. 
            These days I’d call the area mixed use, with farms like Tad’s mostly developed, and the remaining open land, preserved in land trusts, slowly succumbing to natural re-forestation.  The few auto repair shops, roadside markets and tractor dealers from back in the day had also taken on a disintegrating, superannuated hue.
            Tad’s place was at the northernmost limit of that area, describable as the foot hills of a little forested ridge that ran down the spine of the South Fork. This meant that Dayna and I had a hard fight up a relatively modest grade, with lots of starting and stopping, punctuated by fruitless spinning of wheels, just as my surly father warned me against.
            “A little less torque might help,” I said to Dayna over the phone.  She grunted and proceeded slowly, but relentlessly, with or without my advice.  I followed in the same spirit.
            After what felt like hours, because it almost was, we finally reached the head of the driveway that led into Tad Buczek’s place, heralded by the words “Metal Madness” punched out of a slab of aluminum hung above the entrance. 
            “At least it’s downhill from here on,” said Dayna, after making a tentative run at the top of the driveway.  “You ready?”
            “I’ve waited all my life.”
            “I could chain us together again, which might keep you from getting stuck, or just pick my way along in the hope you can keep a safe distance and stay under way.”
            “That’s what I’ve been doing,” I said.
            “This is different.  There’re no road markers.  I’ll be driving blind.”
            “Unchained sounds more like me,” I told her.
            “Okay.  Here we go.”
            Dayna dropped the plow and turned into the driveway.  It was the deepest snow  yet encountered, undisturbed by traffic of any kind.  I could see all four wheels of the pickup throwing up tiny wakes, half-spinning, half digging in.  It wasn’t a slow passage – Dayna needed the velocity to attack the heavy snow, some in drifts that crested over the top of the plow. 
            “Are we headed to the house?” she asked over the cell phone.  “If so, we’ll have to make a hard left very soon.”
            “Let me make another call and I’ll tell you.”
            I hung up and tapped Franco’s number from the list of recent calls.  It rang a few times before he picked up.
            “I see two sets of lights,” he said.  “Is that you?”          
“It’s me and a plow.  Where are you?”
            “In front of the big pergola.  Tell the plow not to run me over.”
            I hung up and did just that.  I told Dayna the pergola was half way between the upcoming left and the main house.  She said “Roger that,” and slowed down to take the left.   I crept up behind, praying I had the momentum to stay stuck to the slippery road surface and still make the turn. 
            We both made it around, and I saw the lights mounted above the truck’s plow kick up to high beams.  I tucked up closer to her rear bumper, feeling more secure at the slower pace she’d chosen.  It was still fast enough to cause the snow to explode out from the front of the truck and wash into me from either side and above.  My windshield wipers, already compromised, soon surrendered, and I picked up the phone to tell Dayna I had to stop when I heard her voice over the speaker. 
            “There’s a guy waving at me,” she said.
            “Stop there.”
            She actually drove a little past him so he was at my passenger side door when I stopped.  I rolled down the window.
            “So Franco, what up?”
            I assumed it was Franco based on the prominent nose and thin black moustache and goatee, which were the only identifying features.  The rest was snow-covered wool coat and baseball cap.  When he greeted me, in his Italian-inflected English, more a lilt than an accent, I was sure it was him.
            I got out of the car, and stumbled around to the other side.  Dayna approached and asked if I was alright.  I introduced the two of them and they peeled off their gloves to shake hands.  Franco gave a neat little bow. 
            “Jackie, I need to show you something.  Ms. Red, you better wait here, if you don’t mind.”
            “I’d rather come,” she said.
            “She can come,” I told him, not knowing exactly why.  I had nothing to fear from Franco, but you quickly grow connected to people, even strangers, who deliver you through dire circumstances.   I wanted her nearby.
            “Suit yourself,” he said, turning and then tromping under Tad’s giant pergola through the deep snow, guided by a bright flashlight, made less so by the tiny snow flakes that streamed down through the woody vines and open beams of the structure above.  I cursed the lack of a hat.  
            It wasn’t a long walk, blessedly, as I quickly grew weary of the trudge, a misery compounded by the slippery soles of my cowboy boots.  We were at the far end of the pergola, in an area that was partially covered by a hard roof under which Tad had a wooden table for al fresco dining.  On top of the table was a long, white mound, at the fringes of which I could see the edge of a blue tarp.  Franco waited for us to come up to him, then took a piece of the tarp in his gloved hand.
            Dayna said “Uh-oh,” under her breath. 
            “You wanted to come,” Franco said to her, then flipped the tarp over the mound, sending the covering snow flying into the air, where some of it was blown back, hitting me in the face.  I wiped my eyes and followed Franco’s flashlight as it outlined the prone figure of a large man, finally stopping at the red and grey mash that used to be the defiant and hard-headed skull of Tadzio Buczek. 

Ice Cap becomes available as of June 5. Order it now at your local bookstore!

Michael Haskins


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