A chilling and compelling new short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
Chapter 5: The Plan
The killer had a nice morning. He’d completed a vigorous workout, which consisted of a lot of Eastern hoodoo and liberal use of free weights. He’d swapped stories with the owner of the North Beach Gym in North Cape May, which included semi-fictitious tales of female conquest, kvetched over coffee with his spotter, a gay nightclub owner who constantly kidded him about switching sides, which sometimes intrigued the killer, although he had more writers to kill before flexing his sexuality.
After the gym was Uncle Bill’s for a ham and provolone omelet and side of oniony home fries, which he wolfed down quickly before the sweat soaking his shirt could dry and turn rank. Then over to the Super Wawa for more coffees and a half-dozen assorted muffins and donuts. Thinking twice, he reached back in for a half-dozen more. He knew he’d better move quickly; his pits were starting to stink.
He made his way to the front, dropped his haul on the counter, and moved to the newspaper rack. He grabbed the Philly and NY papers as well as all the locals – the Herald, the Shoppe, Exit Zero, the Ocean & Globe. He paid the lady behind the counter and wondered if there was a secret factory somewhere that manufactured Wawa employees.
Next he was in his SUV, apple fritter between his teeth. He began rifling through the local papers. All of them led with the recent discovery that a killer was preying on local journalists. And all of them featured glowing, heartfelt tributes to their fallen writers. The Cape May news cycle, unlike every other place on Earth, was still weekly. Big news tended to stack up so the area was stunned when the news of the killings all broke seemingly at once.
The killer, The Editor as the local police had branded him, looked with great pride through the periodicals, skimming the tributes and photos but most enjoyably reading how the police had no idea who was behind it.
He chomped on the pastry, picked up Exit Zero, and smiled. Ever contrary, the magazine said nothing about the murders on the front page. Quite the opposite. The headline read; “Exit Zero Publishing Announces New Book!” Below the banner headline was a picture of Travis Whitaker. The Editor knew him from the big case he had worked the previous summer. The Editor thought him handsome, but not annoyingly so. Trim black hair over a pleasant face and square jaw. He could probably stand to lose 10 or 15 lbs but he was by no means fat. He read the paragraph under the photo…
“Exit Zero proudly announces the addition of Travis Whitaker to its family of authors. In a deal reached several days ago, Mr Whitaker, a private investigator who rose to national prominence in the summer of 2009 with the Dead & Breakfast case, will author an account of those terrifying events. A press conference is scheduled for 2pm, Wednesday. Continued on Page 3.”
The Editor turned and read the rest of the story. It rehashed the first paragraph several times and offered another photo of Whitaker with his partner, Tim DeMarco. It was DeMarco who worried the Editor. Whitaker looked passive, a little soft, a passenger in his own life. But DeMarco looked not physically imposing, and something about his demeanor said PROCEED WITH CAUTION. And honestly, after the ease with which he had dispatched his first seven victims, the Editor was a little aroused at the prospect of a challenge.
The Editor also marveled for a moment at the balls on Donal Lonegan, who had not only ignored the murders but plastered the face of the Editor’s next victim on the cover. He looked at the dashboard clock – 10:43. Enough time to drop off the coffee and pastries to the guys then head home for a shower and shave before attending the press conference. He jammed the truck into gear, swung out of the lot, and home. Turned out he had time to shower, shave, and oil his gun.
1:45PM – EXIT ZERO STORE
I was nervous. I mean, I was always a little nervous. But this was several kinds of nervous at once. I was nervous about this stupid press conference, although I had no one to blame but myself; it was my own stupid idea. Announcing a book for Exit Zero was my plan, and I thought it a good one. It was our, well, my hope (Tim wasn’t on board) that splashing my face on the paper might draw the killer away from Sam Howard and David McComsey, two Exit Zero writers with upcoming releases, and towards me. But I hadn’t really considered the public speaking aspect of the plan when I magically conjured it from my ass.
I was nervous because my high school flame, Cathy Steltzer, was out there. She called a couple days earlier. Her family was down on vacation, she’d seen me in the news last summer and did I want to meet up for coffee or lunch or something. Sure. Why not? I’ll just be working a serial killer case and putting myself in harm’s way to protect two guys I barely know because I need the cash. Absolutely! Italian or seafood?
I was nervous the press conference idea might actually work and that some time in the next half-hour some psycho would rush into the store and start firing rounds at my head. That hadn’t been the killer’s MO before, but who knew? Serial killers weren’t regarded as the reliable types.
“Jesus,” Tim said, sidling up behind me. “You look like a guy in a maternity ward.”
“Nervous,” I said and wiped a hand across my forehead. It came back wet. “How’s it look?”
“Half-dozen print media, a handful of looky-loos, no one with a serial killer T-shirt on, a couple of news cameras…”
“Dude, you’re announcing a book deal in Cape May. In case you haven’t heard, someone is killing everyone with a book deal in Cape May. It’s a big story.”
“Great. Awesome plan.”
Tim clapped me on the back. “I’ll do my best to keep you alive but I can’t promise anything.”
I looked at him. “Why did I hire you again?” A drop of sweat ran into my eye and I blinked.
“Comfort,” he answered. “And girls. I’m a babe magnet.”
Tim patted his ribcage where his brown leather holster, was concealed, just like mine. Copycat. “I got your back,” he said.
He nodded. I nodded. He left. I felt a little better. Not a lot. So I paced. I was in the back room of the Exit Zero store among boxes of T-shirts, books and assorted whatnot. Out on the main sales floor they set up a little stage with table and chairs. I could hear the chattering of the crowd. Sam Howard and David McComsey were behind the curtain partition, looking almost as nervous as I.
McComsey smirked at me. I’m not sure his taut Irish face was capable of a smile. “Your partner, that’s a pretty cool customer. He’d make a great character in one of my stories.”
“Probably,” I answered. Am I not a cool customer?
Sam Howard said, “That’s so funny, I was just thinking the same thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a good guy. But don’t cross him. Ever.”
The two nervous writers got two notches nervouser and I felt a little bad. But it was me putting my neck on the block.
The two men could not have been more different. McComsey was tall, thin, even a little gaunt, like he’d survived some lean times. Howard was 5-8 and round, like a man who’d known nothing but comfort, with a face that, even in this tense moment, exuded an inner fullness of himself. Of course, physical appearance told you jack about a man. It was entirely possible that McComsey had been born to billionaire oil magnates and Howard had grown up on the hardscrabble streets. I’m just saying what I saw.
David said, “Your book, it’s a good idea. Could be a great true life crime read. Can’t believe I didn’t think of it first. Let me know if you need any help with it.”
“Sorry to break it to you, Dave, but the book doesn’t exist. It’s just part of the ruse.”
“Really?” David said. “Interesting.”
Sam said. “It’s got all the elements of great non-fiction. I could have a field day with it.”
David looked annoyed. So was I. I couldn’t tell you why, there was just something too sing-songy about his voice, like he was talking down to you.
“Why don’t you put a sock in it,” David said.
“Take it easy,” Sam retorted. “I didn’t say I could do it better, just that it’d make an interesting story.”
Dave threw him a vicious look. “I know exactly what you were saying.”
Sam spoke like a kindergarten teacher. “Look, Dave, I can’t help it if my book is outselling yours 10 to one.”
“Eight to one,” Dave corrected.
“Nine to three, but there’s no reason for us to be angry with each other.”
I stuck my nose in. “Okay, what’s going on?” The private detective at work.
David sullenly shoved his hands into his pockets and clammed up.
Sam sighed like a disappointed father. “Mr Whitaker, Dave and I are both featured columnists for Exit Zero. I write a ‘Remember When…’ column, I meticulously research and attempt to paint word pictures for my readers and lead them into a world of…”
I said, “I get it.”
David chuckled, Sam continued. “Yes, well, Dave writes a gossip and opinion column. A few years back Donal asked him to work up a short story, so he did,” Sam turned to Dave, “and it was excellent… it really caught the zeitgeist of the town.”
I asked, “What was it?”
David answered, “A zombie thing, but I used all real Cape May people to tell it. People really dug it, stopped asking me to put them in my column and started asking me to turn them into zombies.”
Sam continued, “It was a huge hit. So Donal asked him to write a few more over the years. They were all good…”
David finished, “But none of them captured the imagination like ‘Cape Brains’.”
Sam went on, “Donal had these big plans. He collected Dave’s stories into the anthology Cape Fear, NJ, while Donal and I went to work on Garden State of Eden, the coffee table book. Mine has sold out two printings, Dave’s… hasn’t.”
David sat hard on a stool.
Sam hesitated, swallowed. “And Dave seems to think that Donal put a little more marketing muscle behind my book.”
Dave stood, furious. “A little more? How about you getting three, three, separate invite-only launch parties at Washington Inn, Congress Hall and Cape May Stage, with all three getting their own six-page photo spread in Exit Zero. How about me getting one at the Ugly Mug. I sat in the darkest corner table while Lonegan sat and drank beer. He ran two photos – I wasn’t in either of them. How about him sending review copies to all the major Philadelphia and New York media outlets while sending mine to the Shoppe and The Bright Side. How about…”
Sam interrupted, “How about none of that has anything to do with me.”
“No, oh no, of course not, you’re completely innocent, right? Not like I ever mentioned to you how much it was bothering me and hey, would you mind letting Donal know I’m feeling a little neglected. You know, since I’ve been working here for seven years and you’ve been here two.”
Sam stiffened defensively. “And I’m sure you would have rejected all the press, right? Mr Principled Writer Tortured Artist? I’m sure if Eden was struggling and Fear was selling out that you’d tell Donal, ‘No, please, stop getting my name in the papers, toss some of it Sam’s way’. Not bloody likely.”
They’d obviously had this conversation before. Nice of them to stick me in the middle of it. “Guys, there is no book, so just forget about it,” I said.
This seemed to defuse the moment and they went silent. Seemed to me that David was getting the shaft, but maybe his book just wasn’t that good. I’d have to remember to get a copy of each and see for myself.
Donal Lonegan’s Mr Scotty-like burr called from the front of the store. “Okay, Travis, we’re ready for you.”
Shit. “Wish me luck, fellas.”
David and Sam grunted.
I stepped through the curtain and onto the stage, took a seat. David and Sam followed and sat on either side of me, looking for all the world like best pals. I heard a few digital camera clicks and tried hard not to faint. Lonegan spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, thank you for coming today. It is my great pleasure to introduce to you Mr Travis Whitaker, the newest member of the Exit Zero family of writers…”
He went on about Dead & Breakfast and my personal history. Was pretty boring. I scanned the crowd. There she was, Cathy Steltzer, just as beautiful as I remembered her, soft features framed by shoulder-length brown hair. She still looked 17. I felt 17. This was not a good thing for me. I wanted nothing more than to rush out there, grab her hard, and mash my face into hers, cover it with kisses. I wanted to walk on the beach with her and hold her hand and go ankle deep in the water. I wanted to take her on a trolley ride and tell her all about my life. I wanted to get a room at the Atlas and take her dress and…
“Mr Whitaker!” came the sharp voice. “An answer, please!” The voice belonged to a severe-looking woman with black ringlets and a notepad.
She rolled her eyes. “Daryl Vance, Philadelphia Inquirer. Again. Would you mind telling my readers why you think, in this fiscal climate, that opening a self-funded PI practice with no real business model aside from hitting the lottery as you did with the Dead & Breakfast case, can you explain to me what made you think that was a good idea?”
Huh? What? “Um…”
Donegal tried to save me. “Please, Ms Vance, this is meant to be an introductory conference, not the Nuremberg trials.”
Ms Vance was undeterred. “I’m just trying to auger the mental acuity of your new star here, Lonegan. Certain publications, such as your own, have portrayed Mr Whitaker here as a lucky lunkhead. I’m trying to determine whether or not this is accurate.”
The room filled with stifled laughter. Vance. Daryl Vance. Where do I know that name from?
“Daryl,” Lonegan said. “Travis here is new to the game, there’s no need to haze him.”
She cocked an eyebrow. Was I crazy or was she good-looking? “Who says I’m hazing?”
“Come,” Lonegan said. “Any woman who wrote so rapturously about Garden State of Eden can’t possibly be this mean.”
That was it. She’d penned the slobbering love letter to Sam Howard’s book I’d read the other day. That’s where I knew the name. I was just about to answer her question, but I couldn’t because someone in the back of the room was aiming a gun at me.
Man, I hate it when a plan works.