A chilling and compelling new short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
My name is Travis Whitaker and I’m a private investigator. I like to sit in my modest little Queen Street office with my feet kicked up on my beat-up old desk because it seems like the kind of thing a cocky PI would do on his downtime, not that I’ve had much of that lately.
I salvaged the desk from a yard sale a little over a year-and-a-half ago, despite repeated promises to myself that I’d never be THAT GUY, the guy who endangers a large chunk of humanity by pulling over abruptly out of steady moving traffic to investigate the shiny bauble displayed in someone’s front yard that they have somehow deemed unworthy of taking up space in their house but for some reason would be perfect in mine. It made me feel white trashy and so unlike the kind of thing a person should be doing in Cape May, even though hundreds, maybe thousands, of people do it every damn Saturday with little regard for the well-being of those innocents around them. I JUST HAVE TO HAVE THAT C3PO COAT RACK, DAMMIT! NOW GET OUT OF MY WAY!
But I digress. Point is, it was a damn fine-looking desk. It had character and I wanted it, so there we are. The desk was here when it looked like Whitaker Investigations wouldn’t make it through its first summer in existence. I always thought it would be a “starter” desk, sure to be replaced by a fancier model once the money came flowing in. And six months ago the money did start flowing in, not great big gobs of it, but enough to keep the lights on and make a few needed improvements.
While the rest of the office received substantial upgrades (and by substantial I mean drywall, wiring, working electricity, that sort of thing…), I found myself unable to do away with the old girl, which peeled black paint like dirty dandruff. I guess something about it felt safe, welcoming. After the harrowing events of last summer (cannibalistic B&B owners… it’s a long story) it felt right to have something familiar greet me in the office when I cracked it open every morning. It wasn’t a dog, but who had the time?
The desk, and who knows why I’m talking so much about the damn desk, I should probably talk to someone about that (probably something to do with my mother), sat about 10 feet directly inside the elegant French doors which, to my everlasting credit, I’d had installed before I became solvent, though my partner, Tim Demarco refused to believe it.
“No WAY you have enough taste for something as architecturally beautiful yet functional as that,” Tim had said. He was always saying nice things like that. And while I pretended to be stung by his slings and arrows, truth was I’d picked these particular French doors because they were the last set in stock over at Cape May Lumber, it was getting cold, and there was a giant hole in the front of my office. Plus Kevin Carr offered me 10% off if I’d take them that day. They were about three times as much as I was looking to spend (I mean, come on, it’s a door), but at the time I’d been flush with the inheritance money that had allowed me to open the business to begin with, and so caught in the thrill of setting up my own PI business that I threw caution to the wind. Besides, once the cash and the dames started rolling in who was going to care how much I spent on the damn doors, right?
It was easy to laugh now, of course, but nagging in the back of my head, the thing that keeps me motivated is the fact that I was about two weeks from closing up shop when the phone rang and the bed & breakfast case fell into my lap.
On the wall to my left is a small array of driftwood frames, hanging next to the door of the records room. The records room was still mostly empty, but it’s now decked to the teeth with all manner of filing cabinet and container, and now had modern walls with their electrical outlets and unexposed studs and such. Amazing what a few thousand dollars and one honest contractor in Cape May can do. But back to the frames; inside each one was a newspaper clipping, one of the half-dozen headlines that accompanied the breaking of the B&B story, the story being the 150-year-old cult that started during the Civil War and lasted until it was uncovered last summer. It was organized by a crazy old coot named Isaac Smith, but was also peopled by members of more than 20 prominent Cape May families, doctors and lawyers and such, until yours truly busted it up like Captain America busting a Nazi spy ring. I was quitethe Warholian celebrity for 15 minutes.
“LOCAL P.I. BREAKS HUGE CASE,” read the Herald headline.
“CAPE MAY P.I. SOLVES HISTORIC MYSTERY,” read the Press of Atlantic City.
“JERSEY SHORE DETECTIVE UNCOVERS BIZARRE PLOT,” said the Philadelphia Inquirer.
There were also smaller articles from the Philadelphia Daily News, Wilmington News Journal, and New York’s Post, Times and Daily News, all basically rehashing the same three or four points. But the case did also manage a few national mentions, in publications as varied as Newsweek, Time and Entertainment Weekly, which gave Dateline’s dramatization of the case a C+. But my personal favorite came from the National Enquirer…
“NEW JERSY SUPERCOP SLEEPING WITH ALL SIX NEW JERSEY HOUSEWIVES!”
I’ve never even MET any of these housewives, never knew who they were before seeing this little headline, let alone slept with any of them. But I tell you what, I figured out what the hell the Bravo network was in a hurry.
Then came the one that hurt the most…
“SMALL-TIME DICK STUMBLES ONTO BREAK OF A LIFETIME,” read the Exit Zero magazine cover, along with a highly unflattering photo of myself, stumbling out of the Ugly Mug or maybe Jackson Mountain late after a celebratory binge. Mug. It was the Mug. Now I remember, it was a Terrible Tuesday. But the reason it hurt me deep down inside where I’m soft like a woman, the reason was… because it was true.
I had this actor friend once, years ago, during my days as a construction worker and part-time bartender at the King Edward bar in the Chalfonte. This actor friend, he confesses to me once that all actors are fearful and insecure because, deep down where the truth lurks, none of them think they’re any good, and that someday soon, very soon, someone is going to figure them out and expose them for the frauds they are. And he was a good actor, mind you. Imagine how the bad ones must feel. And while there were plenty of actors I wish would be exposed, never to darken my TV screen again, I knew exactly how he felt. It was an intricate, delicate series of near-misses and coincidence that led to my breaking of the B&B case. I found it hard to sleep sometimes when I thought of the tenuous connections that held the whole thing together. I was about three microseconds from giving up on the damn thing until I saw the jalapeno. The damn jalapeno. And all the hell that followed.
But, eh, nobody wants to hear me bitch about the biggest case of my life, the one that made my career, so I tried not to do it too often. Fact was, luck or not, I did solve the case. Fact was, tenuous connections or not, it did all hold together. Fact was, I’d earned those damn headlines and the upsurge in work (and money and notoriety) that came with them. And fact was, life is an intricate series of near-misses and coincidences, so my plan was to try and enjoy it and bugger the rest of them.
But the Exit Zero story bugged me, gnawed at me, so I kept it there, six feet to my left, as a constant reminder that we’re all frauds. Then I made a note to see what one had to do to get in touch with those housewives. A couple of them were pretty hot.
“Morning, boss,” Tim bellowed upon entering the office. In such confined space his merriment was like a shotgun blast.
“You’ve got to lay off the Red Bull,” I replied and took the hot cup of Wawa coffee Tim offered.
“Shit,” Tim replied. “Red Bull drinks me.”
We tapped cups and drank. “Hazelnut, nice.”
Tim nodded modestly. “I know you like that fancy crap.”
You see? Hurtful.
“What’s on the docket, jefe?”
I hated it when he called me “jefe” or “bwana” or “boss” or any of the 27 derivations thereof, but he knew that, so that’s why he did it. In six months he’d built up am impressive array of them.
I answered, “You know, that shingle out front reads Whitaker AND Demarco, so maybe give it a rest for a day.”
Tim spread his arms, “Hey, whatever you say, Kingfisher.”
I wiped a hand across my face. Tim was a guy that needed a role, and right now his role was employee. When the time came, that role would change. In the meantime he’d pretend to be subordinate and I’d pretend to let him. Guy saved my life, I owed him at least that.
“So,” he asked again. “Any jobs today?”
“Paperwork,” I told him.
“For me,” I continued. “For you, brighten up, officers Genaro and Austin will be here in about 10 minutes. I wangled you some time at the shooting range with the newest recruit class.”
“Boss, you shouldn’t have.”
“Don’t get all teary-eyed. Sooner I can get you certified the sooner you can start carrying on the job. Legally, for once.”
“Still,” Tim said and hugged me, briefly but tightly, his ever-present 5 o’clock shadow slicing into my rosy, freshly shaven cheek, “I know you had to call in a favor. I appreciate it.”
I waved him off. “Don’t sweat it.” But Tim was right; I’d now used every ounce of his pull I had with the CMPD, which was not very much to begin with, to get Tim on the range. In all of my post-case newspaper and TV interviews, I’d been sure to heap effusive praise upon the Cape May Police Department for their swift and smart actions in the B&B case. I did this with 100% sincerity, for were it not for the CMPD I would most likely be rotting, folded up in a few squares of toilet paper, in a landfill under the George Washington Bridge. The unintended consequences of such public praise came in the form of greater police cooperation on my ensuing cases, the occasional turning of the blind eye on others, and sometimes even a personal favor. These cost a little more in capital and were difficult to repay, but I didn’t ask often and planned to keep it that way.
“Now go clean your gun. And for Christ’s sake, get a haircut you dirty hippie.”
Tim looked back with a smile and his Zen calm, flipped his long locks over his shoulders, and said, “Never.”
He went into the second office, his office, and prepped his gear for the range. I smiled. A year ago, hell, nine months ago, we were little more than passing acquaintances, knew each other well enough from some common social circles to say hello on the street or bum a cigarette (which I’m trying to quit and GOD could I use one right now), but in the 48 hours that comprised the B&B case (which some on the CMPD had nicknamed the Dead & Breakfast case, which I took as a sign of grudging respect) we’d grown closer than brothers. That’ll happen when you take turns pulling each other’s fat out of the fire.
Plus, Tim walked away from the B&B case WITH THE GIRL. Usually it was the lead detective (or the double-agent or the super-spy) that landed the dame, but not in my world. In my world I get to watch my buddy walk away with the blonde, a real and true looker, while I had to deal with the endless phone calls and paperwork. The blonde was the one we rescued from the old, inactive coal cellar last summer just before she got fricasseed. It was me, the last man standing, that saved her life. Yet Tim got the girl. This should have burned me to no end, but Tim was such a good guy I couldn’t help but be happy for him. Besides, I’d been pretty unlucky in love for most of my adult life and was in no hurry to rush back in there. Tim’s girl, Lizzy Myers, lived in Kennett Square, PA, about two hours from us, but came down every other weekend or so and was still deep in the glow of newfound smittenness with her Orlando Bloom-ish savior. They both were. It was quite sickening, to be honest. Jealous much?
“Ready to go,” Tim announced as he emerged from his office with the small black case that held his silver, snub-nosed .38, just like mine.
“Look who’s all growed up.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Need a cigarette?”
So we stepped outside and I guiltily lit up, started pacing and drumming my fingers on the railing.
Tim asked, “All right, what’s bugging you?”
I paused a moment. “Am I that easy to read or are you just scarily observant?”
Tim shrugged. “Can’t it be both?”
He was my partner and deserved to know, though the news wasn’t good and I hated to do anything to harsh his life buzz, but here we were. “To be honest with you Tim, finances aren’t, uh, what they were. The well’s running a little dry.”
“I thought we were doing well?”
I took a deep drag. “We were. We are. But I sank most of the cash back into the business. Computers, safes, alarms, all that crap. It costs money. And now that all the media hype has died down, well, the phone, she ain’t ringing quite as much.”
Tim asked, “How bad is it.”
It was my turn to shrug. “We’ve got a couple of months, three maybe, before it’s time to really get worried. I’m sorry, Tim. I thought reinvesting was the right thing to do.”
“It was. Absolutely. We’ve got top of the line everything. You need that to compete these days.”
This much was true. We had all the 007 spy gear you could ever want – listening devices, night vision goggles, pen cameras, all the stuff you see in the spy movies. Trouble was, we rarely had call to use it. But God forbid I get the one phone call from the rich client who NEEDS it and I don’t have it…
“We’ll be all right,” Tim said. For some reason when he said it I believed it.
“We’ll see,” I replied.
“Come on now,” Tim cajoled. “You know how much you love telling me the story how you were broke and just about to close up shop, then the phone rings and two days later you’re the most famous PI in the country. It’s fate, brother. Dame Fortuna will determine our lot, not a bigger ad in the AC Press.”
I sucked at the cigarette some more. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right,” Tim assured me. “You know what we need right now? A good old fashioned murder mystery. Something to put our names back in the papers. Trust me, my friend. It’ll all be good.”
Then the phone rang. We stared at it.
Tim said, “Sounds like the phone.”
“You better answer it then.”
It rang five more times. I sighed. Tim was clearly not going to pick it up.
“Come on, what are the odds?” I said and picked up the phone.
Odds, it turned out, were pretty good.
Next Week: Love on the Rocks