Deranged Serial Killer Stalks Cape May… A Chilling New Short Story by Terry O’Brien
Christian North was a hard-working Cape May journalist. Of course, most journalists were hard-working (save those who liked to fabricate stories for The New Republic, get featured on 60 Minutes then have highly underrated movies made of their story), but hard-working Cape May journalists were an exclusive lot; Cape May was a town of 2 newspapers, one of them free.
Christian toiled in relative obscurity for the Cape May Ocean & Globe, composing some 75% of its journalistic material and conducting its only actual investigative reporting. The Ocean & Globe read a little dry. So dry it made the New York Times read like The Onion. However, the Globe was more than 75 years old and thus was considered the paper of record around town, especially by those who were old enough to remember when the upstart publication debuted in the summer of 1933. This was because the Globe did serious reporting on serious issues. It was also because for just about all of its 75+ years it had been the only paper in town.
The Globe’s chief and only rival, established in the Year of Our Lord 2002, was a free tabloid called Exit Zero, its name taken from the a nickname bestowed upon Cape May, which sat at the very end of the Garden State Parkway, the very southern tip of New Jersey, and thus had no freeway exit, hence the moniker. Exit Zero was published by a transplanted Scotsman and often featured such august and hard-hitting articles as “The Rest Rooms of Cape May”, “The Old Fogey” and “Bird Droppings”, as well as regular gossip and bar-crawling columns. Exit Zero was irreverent. So irreverent it made The Onion read like the New York Times. Inspired by the legendarily cheeky Pennywise, a social record of some renown which existed from the mid-30’s to the early 70’s, Exit Zero trafficked in publishing 100’s of photos of locals and tourists in their natural habitats (on the beach in bikinis or drunk in bars) and had so pervaded Cape May consciousness that one could hardly walk a block without seeing the latest issue in a store window or someone walking by with an Exit zero hat or t-shirt. This did not sit well with the Ocean & Globe crowd, most of whom wore trusses and Medical ID bracelets.
But none of this deterred Exit Zero or its publisher, who shepparded the paper from an 8-page leaflet to 128-page juggernaut complete with its own line of merchandise.
There was a 3rd local paper, the Cape May County Herald, which outsold them both by at least a 10-to-1 margin, but the Herald (itself a freebie, but chock full of expensive ads and annoying department store flyers which papered approximately 73% of all open space in the county) covered all of Cape May County, which ran from Exit Zero up to Exit 25, and so didn’t really count in the vaunted Battle of Cape May Periodicals.
But ad sales and readership numbers were the furthest thing from Christian North’s mind as he skulked along the beachfront promenade. While in investigative reporting mode, he always preferred to skulk rather than walk. Made him feel more investigative. So he cinched his Globe hoodie a little tighter around his face and higher on his shoulders and skulked. It was a Saturday night in July and the hoodie wasn’t really necessary, even though it was 10 degrees cooler on the beachfront than anywhere else in town, but it was black and concealed his face, which added to his skulkiness. So he wore it and skulked on past Henry’s on the Beach, Oasis Pizza (Christian often wondered why so many Arabs moved to New Jersey to make too-garlicky pie) and the boarded up husk of Famous Annie’s Famous Dinner Theater, which shuttered its doors a couple years back after its founder snorted up all the cash, forcing this local franchise to close. Was probably for the best, Christian figured. He’d been once to review a show for the paper, something with scantily clad pirates, even scantlier clad wenches, and some tangential plot about Pirate Kings or some such nonsense.
“All it was missing,” Christian had written then, “was Will Ferrell as Robert Goulet and some sort of jive-talking animal sidekick.”
It was a harsh, but fair review, written just before Annie’s and Cape May’s other theater company, The Equity, became embroiled in a pointlessly complicated murder-mystery, which left the now-thriving Cape Equity Theater, across the street, as the only show tune game in town.
Christian glanced across. At this hour the theater was dark, but a couple of red pinpoints glowed near the front doors, no doubt there was some sort of rehearsal going on and a couple of degenerate smokers needed to bring the process to a halt to fix their tobacco jones. Degenerate smoking actors. Beyond south-Korean-ex-wives, Christian couldn’t think of a demographic he might like less. He wanted to spit, but the stiff wind blowing off the ocean would probably have sent it flying straight back into his face, so instead he made a hard right past Annie’s and walked the length of boards past Morrow’s Nut House and McGlade’s restaurant, two of Christian’s favorite places on Earth. McGlade’s made an exquisite breakfast and Christian went at least once weekly. He made a point of ordering something different each time, and each time came away satisfied and excited at how good something as mundane as breakfast could be. He also heard good things about the crab cakes and made a mental note to stop in for lunch early next week. Morrow’s Nut House, conversely, offered dozens of different sugary dreams; chocolate, licorice, Gummi, cashew… all the things Christian had vowed, day after day, year after year to cut back on, only to find himself walking out every few days with a wax bag full of some evil goodness. And on the days he managed to get past Morrow’s, the Fudge Kitchen usually did him in soon after, sitting as it did only a few doors down.
This place is a dietary death trap, he thought to himself and wished like hell Morrow’s was open. He was craving a chocolate covered cherry.
Finally, he got to the rear end of the promenade, went down the 3 wooden steps to the beach, and began trudging toward the jetty, some 50 yards ahead. Christian hated the sand. It got in everything; shoes, pants pockets, hair, ears. One of his least favorite memories of the beach was picking up the superb peanut butter and jelly sandwich he’d made for himself one day several years ago, taking a hungry bite, and finding, instead of the pliant bread and sweet insides, what seemed like a handful of sand that gritted and crunched between his teeth and made his hair itch. If the anonymous tipster who’d called hadn’t promised a huge story he would have told him to take a flying leap. Sand is for suckers. But he was diligently working on his first book, a detailed history of government corruption in Cape May, and what the tipster had mentioned about the Mayor, the waitress and her boyfriend was just the kind of juicy nugget he’d been looking for, a tabloid-ready tale of sexual congress and class warfare that would make the book a sensation, and had him almost physically drooling. He was willing to go as far as he needed to get this information, up to and including things he hadn’t done since freshman year of college when he’d found himself drunk and writhing amidst a collection of naked coed bodies in a frat house basement. More than that and the guy had better have pictures of Barack Obama with a dead hooker. Or a live boy.
Though the Gurney Street jetty seemed an odd place to meet, if this anonymous tip contained even a kernel of truth, it would be worth some sand in the ears. Christian played with different chapter titles in his head. “Cape May: Pristine Beaches, Dirty Pols.” “The Mayor, the Waitress and the Cheap Motel.” “Cape May Corruption: A Tradition of Excellence.”
None of them would earn him any friends in City Hall, but that wasn’t really the point. Christian saw the book as his way out of this one-horse town and into the relative media Mecca’s of Atlantic City, Newark or Camden. If he was lucky he might even get a nibble from Philadelphia or New York. It didn’t matter to Christian; anyplace was better than here. And the more sensational the book, within the bounds of truth, the better the odds his profile would be raised high enough to earn a ticket out.
Next thing he knew, he was there, at the foot of the jetty. Here the wind and surf were loud enough that he could barely hear himself think. He wondered how he would be able to talk to the tipster in such a cacophony, which made him even more irritated at being on the beach at midnight on a Saturday than he had been. He shielded his face against the stinging sand and peered back toward the promenade. Nothing. His contact was late. Christian stomped around for a minute, then pulled his cell phone telephone from the pocket of his hoodie. He flipped it open and scrolled through his contacts to the E’s til he found the number he wanted and pressed send with an angry thumb pad, prepared to rip whomever picked up the other end a new one for passing along faulty information. Oddly, faintly but not far away, he thought he heard the telltale chime of a cell phone ringing, but then it was gone, a figment on the wind. He turned toward the ocean and composed his first few berating sentences in his head, but noticed his cell screen had gone black. He pressed send, didn’t he? He turned back to the sea after double-pumping the send button and that’s when he saw him. Or her. He saw it. A dark figure against the moonlit water.
“Jesus Christ!” Christian shouted. “You scared the hell out of me! How long have you been there?”
The dark figure said nothing, just stood there impassively. Christian was annoyed that the informant had gotten the drop on him, but the more he thought about it the more sense it made that they would arrive first, set-up a superior observation spot, make sure Christian wasn’t monkeying around with police or some such thing.
Christian called again. “I say hello! How long have you been here?”
Still nothing from the man on the jetty.
“Playing it real cloak and dagger are you? Okay, I’ll bite…” he said to himself, visions of best-sellerdom dancing in his head, and started out to meet the man. Footing was treacherous on the great rocks; they were shiny and wet, most were the size of a small truck. A fall, from this height and onto these jagged corners would not be good for Christian, who stood a solid 6’ 3” and carried about 250 lbs. on his large frame. He was softer than he wanted to be; he’d been in pretty decent shape until a few years ago, when complications arose from a knee replacement surgery and kept him off his feet for 8 weeks. What was it with Staph these days? Regardless, a good bit of his muscled carriage had turned to flab in the down time and had never quite been recovered. But as a former Marine who took pride in his conditioning he’d rehabbed aggressively to get to where he was now. Still, he stepped carefully, not wanting to find out if he could absorb such a fall.
He silently cursed himself for wearing his loafers when sneakers or boots would have been more in order, but he’d had no way of knowing that when he got the information. So he baby-stepped further and further out onto the rocks.
“Hello!” he cried again. “It’s Christian! Christian North from the Ocean & Globe! You wanted to speak to me? You have some information for me?”
Still silence and stillness from the dark figure. As Christian neared him he noticed the man’s odd posture. He was tall but reed thin. As the strong winds buffeted off the water his coat blew against his frame and revealed him to be of similar physicality to Pee Wee Herman. At least Christian knew he could take him in a fist fight if for some insane reason it came to that.
Then, finally, some movement. The strongest wind yet yowled in off the Atlantic and the figure raised its right arm. Christian waved back, but seconds later felt like a complete fool when he realized the “man” was nothing more than a coat and hat strategically placed on a tall “DO NOT WALK ON THE JETTY” sign.
“What the hell?” Christian snatched the garments and began to wonder what in the hell exactly was going on here.
“Should have minded the sign,” came a voice from behind him.
Christian turned just in time to see the shovel smash into his face. The hat and coat flew off into the night as Christian fell. White sparks fired off behind his eye and he staggered on the slippery rocks.
A second blow crashed into his face and sent him teetering dangerously close to the edge of the wet rocks.
Christian fell to his knees and a third blow fell on the back of his head and, a tinny ring echoing into the wind. He felt his teeth come loose in his mouth. He was quite certain that, for whatever reason, he was going to die on this Godforsaken jetty in the sand. The god damned sand.
“That’ll do,” he heard his attacker say and the shovel fell to the rocks with a dull clank. The dark figure stepped over him. Christian girded for the death blow; a knife to stick into his ribs or his throat, or perhaps a bullet into his frontal lobe, but none of that came. His head swirled and cold jolts of pain screamed through his face, and he found himself wishing the death strike would come. He felt like vomiting and so he did. As he had suspected, a dozen teeth lay in the splattered bile in front of him. It suddenly dawned on him that he might never again enjoy the sweet goodness of a marzipan strawberry from Morrow’s, or a bacon and avocado omelet from McGlade’s. So he tried to stand, to fight.
“Easy there,” his attacker said and planted a foot on his back, forcing him back down. The foot then went to the back of his head and ground his face painfully into the cold, wet rock.
Despite the crippling pain Christian could feel the dark figure going through his pockets and wondered what on Earth he could be looking for. His answer came when the killer found his beloved, leather-bound reporter’s notebook in his back pocket and removed it with an, “Ah, there she is.” The notebook, well worn, faded and fraying, had been a gift from his former wife; the one good thing that came out of their 12-year union, and he really liked it. Now, for some reason, it was going to cost him his life.
The killer said, “Hope you took good notes, I’m going to need them.”
And like a bell going off, at that moment Christian knew exactly who his killer was.
“Bastard,” he spat, spittle and blood flying from his smashed lips.
“Figured it out, did you? Tis true I’m afraid,” the killer replied, removed his foot from Christian’s skull, then picked up the shovel. “Any last words?”
Christian, now certain his fate was sealed, pushed the pain out of his head, gathered the remaining threads of his dignity, and pulled himself to his knees. He paused for just a moment. He wanted his final words to be poised, even poetic, maybe, no matter who the audience was. He was writing his own epitaph, as it were, and how many people got the chance to do that. He opened his mouth to say…
The final blow nearly removed Christian’s head from his neck. The killer’s hands stung and he was reminded of watching the World Series last fall and how the announcers kept saying that hitting the ball on a cold night felt like having bees in your hands.
Jesus, the killer thought. That’s exactly what it feels like.
He turned in time to see Christians body seemingly flutter in the wind momentarily before body toppling off of the rocks and into the swirling water below. Turned out Christian was right to be worried. He would not have survived a fall from this height.
* * *
“CAPE MAY OCEAN & GLOBE GRIEVES LOSS,” read the headline of the next issue. Below it, a recent photo of Christian North, his salt-and-pepper hair, inquisitive, some might say beady eyes and Burt Reynolds circa 1974 power mustache. He was a handsome man in a non-classical sense and would be sorely missed by the 3 ladies in and around Cape May he’d found the time to juggle in the last 18 months.
The story that followed chose to concentrate of his career and education; Temple University in Philadelphia, stops at 6 other small New Jersey newspapers before the Globe, the 3 months he’d spent in Viet Nam at the tail end of the war (and where, apparently, he’d discovered his taste for Asian and/ or exotic women). There were a dozen paragraphs of this. Only at the very end did the reporter make mention of the brutal way in which he met his end and the fact that he was working on a book about Cape May politics. The reporter did not mention it was going to be a SENSATIONAL book about CORRUPT politics, and this made the killer very unhappy as he sipped his Wawa coffee and leafed through the paper.
However, the piece, which ran for parts of 3 pages, was well-written; concise with just enough subjective grief to make it human. The killer flipped back to the front page and the byline; Darryl Vance on loan from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Darryl Vance, the killer thought, a strong journalist’s name. On loan from the Philadelphia Inquirer? This meant one of a very few things, all of them leading back to someone, somehow at the pitiable Ocean & Globe in Cape May had connections into Philadelphia. Or vice versa.
The killer made a mental note to figure out which it was.
Biting into a delicious, still-warm apple fritter, the killer closed the paper and pondered his next move. The murder and accompanying article had been the first step. Actually, Christian North had been the 6th step. The first 5 would come to light soon enough and the 7th would take place later that night. Somewhere deep inside himself the killer knew there was a 12-step joke to be made, but he could not yet put his finger on it. But it would come. A little thrill ran through him, like when his favorite TV show, LOST, was about to start or he heard Obama give a speech. At first, the act of murdering people seemed alien to him, simply a distasteful means to an end, but it had grown on him, like exercising or eating broccoli, and so he now looked forward to these little dates with destiny as he would a good meal. Maybe even more so. Too bad murdering didn’t pay, he had become very good at it.
The killer chomped down the last bit of the fritter, chased it with a swig of Hazelnut coffee, and wheeled out of the Wawa parking lot. 1.7 miles and 26 minutes later he had fought through the midsummer Cape May traffic and miraculously found a spot on the Washington Street Mall. He popped out of his car, slipped the Yankees cap down over his eyes, and made his way through the crowds to the Dellas 5 & 10, where one could find anything from beach toys to playing card to underwear. This week they were having a sail on trench coats. And the killer was going to need a new one for tonight.