A chilling and compelling new short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
Chapter 7: Critic’s Choice
It was getting late, I was tired, but I couldn’t think about sleep. Too much was happening. Aside from nearly being shot and my partner, Tim DeMarco, narrowly avoiding a bullet to the ribs earlier this afternoon, we had just discovered that two authors who have been dead for about a week somehow had their books available on Amazon. Further internet searches yielded more sites offering the books – Borders, Barnes & Noble, and now Donal Lonegan’s Exit Zero website. This was something that shouldn’t be happening.
“That seem a bit odd to you?” Tim asked me as we stared at the Amazon screen that offered Christian North’s Cape May Political Corruption: A Tradition of Excellence and Justine Smith’s Dirty Dining: The Mafia’s Connection to the Vatican and the Great New Jersey Diner Syndicate.
“More than a bit,” I answered.
We stewed for a moment, then I said, “Get in touch with Lonegan, ask him to meet us here.”
“Now. I’ll be right back.”
I left Tim’s office and went back to the main office of my Queen Street cottage, sat at my desk and checked my email for the 57th time that hour. I was waiting to hear from Daryl Vance, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who was there when the shooting went down, had penned a glowing review of Sam Howard’s book Garden State of Eden, and whose uncle, Christian North, was one of the serial killer known as The Editor’s recent victims.
My inbox was empty.
“You okay, Trav?” asked Cathy Steltzer from the sofa in front of my desk.
Cathy was my deepest high school crush and sat there, looking radiant and serene in the amber glow of a lamp. She smiled, waiting patiently for me, after all these years. Her, waiting for me. And here I was, waiting for an email from another woman, a woman I had no romantic inclination towards… or did I? At first glance Daryl had seemed a little severe for my tastes. Probably had something to do with the pummeling she gave me at the press conference earlier. But in the minutes after, in the chaos, something changed. I was feeling very confused.
“Yes, thanks, Cath,” I replied. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting like this, but I need to move on this stuff while it’s still happening, keep on top of it, sort it out.”
“I understand,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting. But it’s getting late and I need to get some sleep.”
She rose and strode toward the desk with a different look in here eye. It was definitely not serene.
“I’m going to go,” she said, leaned over me and kissed me very deeply in places I hadn’t been kissed in a long time. “Here’s my spare key. I’m at the Grand. If you get done soon maybe you can come over and stay on top of me.”
She kissed me again and walked to the door. “Bye.”
And she left. It was several more seconds before I was able to put together a coherent thought. Tim came out of his office.
“I’m going to order some pizza before Louie’s closes, you want any…” he saw the look on my face. “What just happened here?”
I shook my head. “Not sure.”
“You let her leave?”
“The girl you’ve been in love with for 20 years?”
I nodded again.
“Are you an idiot?”
I nodded and got up. Maybe I could still catch her.
I slung my light jacket from the C3PO rack in the corner, bolted to the door and threw it open.
“Howdy, stranger.” Daryl Vance was in the doorway.
“Daryl,” I said, “What…”
“I got your emails, all 12 of them, figured I’d shoot over.”
“How did you know where…?”
“You’re in the book. Voila!”
Behind her, Cathy’s blue Ford Focus peeled out of the drive. If a car could sound mad, this one did.
Daryl turned to watch her leave. “Interrupting something?”
I debated my reply for a few seconds, weighing personal satisfaction versus professional pride, and came up with, “No. Nothing that can’t wait. I hope. Come in.”
“Nice place you got here.”
Tim said, “Thanks.”
“Grab a seat,” I said and led Daryl to the little sofa. She chose the wingback chair next to it. Something they taught in Female Journalist School? Never let a man tell you what to do? “And thanks for coming. I realize now this must be quite difficult for you.”
She looked lost, then it struck her. “You read my blog post.”
I nodded. So did Tim, but more sexily, as he pulled a chair up next to mine behind the desk. I was not much of a sexy nodder.
“Sorry about your uncle,” I offered. Tim nodded consolingly with exaggerated pursed lips and bedroom eyes. Was he high?
She waved me off. “Forget it. We weren’t all that close. His half-sister is my mother. We’re not close either. But family is family. When the Ocean & Globe found out we were related I was more than happy to write his obituary.”
I said, “It’s nice of you.”
“Eh,” she replied. “I had a few vacation days coming up and I hadn’t been to the shore in a while. It’s not entirely altruistic; the Globe is paying for my room and meals.”
“Can I get you a drink?” Tim asked in an inexplicably deeper voice. “Water? Beer? Wine?”
“Some wine would be great. It’s been an exceptionally long day.”
“True that,” I said wondering what Tim was doing. “You get to Cape May much, Ms Vance?”
She replied, “It’s Miss. And Daryl. And no. I’m more of a Wildwood girl. My family summered there growing up.”
“I get that,” I said and she smiled at me. I felt flush.
“Here you go,” Tim said returning with red wine for three.
“So the Inquirer,” I said. “What’s that like? I heard journalism was dead.”
“No,” she smiled – a shark’s smile. “But it might be soon if we don’t catch this guy.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “We?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
We sat the three of us and chatted a bit, seeking out a comfort zone and finding it. The longer we went, the more relaxed Daryl became. Likely the result of the late hour, the long day, and the wine. Maybe an hour passed just shooting the breeze when Tim announced he was going for more booze and to check his email. When he came back his false machismo was gone and he looked grave.
“What is it?” I asked.
We all went to my desktop. In the hour since I’d checked, the list of books co-authored by The Editor had grown from two to seven. Not surprisingly, the title of each corresponded with the initial list we’d gotten from Lonegan – Jack Schlister’s Deadly Shores: The Secret Awful Truth About Dredging, the Jack Schlister they were still piecing together from the wood chipper he’d been found in. Brian Crandall’s New Jersey Sports Heroes: Six Profiles. Brian had been bludgeoned with a bat then quartered at each base on the Cape May Little League Field. Ray Stein’s Cape Gay: The Not-So-Secret Secret of America’s Outest Shore Town. Ray was killed with Shakespearean flair, a sip of hemlock and a knife in the spine. Barry Chisholm’s Never Order Bisque on Tuesday, Lauren Cotton’s A Little Over: The Dirty Secret the Fudge Stores DON’T Want You to Know. All of them dead. All of them listed under New Releases on the Amazon page that glowed at us from my monitor.
“Shit,” I said, feeling stupid.
“Wow,” Daryl echoed. She was leaning over my shoulder and the smell of strawberry in her hair and wine on her breath made me dizzy. I suddenly wondered what strawberry wine tasted like.
“Sorry,” Tim said, snatched his cell from his belt and ducked into his office.
I turned. Daryl was there.
“Startled me,” she said.
She lingered. I felt like I was breathing heavy. Or not enough. She let her hair fall across my neck before moving back around the desk to her chair. Were her cheeks red? I’m sure mine were.
“It’s Lonegan,” Tim announced. “He’s on his way over.”
I looked at the clock, 11:57, sighed and stood, “Okay, I’m going out for a smoke. Back in five.”
Tim winked at me. “Don’t worry. I’ll look after our guest.”
Yes. That’s what I was afraid of.
The Editor stood in the bushy grove and peered through the leaves at the small cottage that housed Whitaker & DeMarco Investigations. Through various internet and document searches he knew the cottage, and the two-story apartment building in front of it, were both the sole possession of one Travis Whitaker, 32, of Cape May, the property left by an aunt in 2006, along with a chunk of cash that Whitaker had poured back into the property and used to open the PI business.
Foolish investments, the Editor thought. But good for him.
The apartment building was half-occupied at the moment – Whitaker lived on the second floor, the first floor sat empty.
A shame, he wondered. It really is a nice apartment.
However, the economic downturn left the $1500-a-month pad empty for the last nine months and it had, in fact, been empty since receiving a certificate of occupancy from the city last fall. The Editor figured Whitaker was counting on the rent money to keep the business afloat, or at least cover the mortgage – the property had been bequeathed to him with 10 years of mortgage left unpaid. He almost felt bad for the guy he was about to murder. He felt almost a personal affection for Travis Whitaker, having read about his Dead & Breakfast exploits the summer before. He seemed like a good guy. Shame he had to kill him.
The Editor took several deep, short breaths and prepared to stepped out of the bushes.
Cell phone. Stupid!
He’d forgotten to silence it and the ring was a cacophony in the silence. He grabbed it from his belt and set it to vibrate. He did not recognize the number so let it go to voicemail. Rattled, he took a moment to collect himself. He knew there were three people in the office – Whitaker, DeMarco and the reporter from the press conference. It made him smile. He’d been there the whole time and no one knew. Then the fool with the gun…
Instead of anger, The Editor took the interruption as a sign to refine his plan, and so he did. Killing Whitaker and his partner in their own building would not be as splashy as assassinating them at the press conference, but would send a more serious message. Throw in the reporter and you’re guaranteed another week’s coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
It was going to be perfect.
The phone buzzed indicating a voicemail. The Editor listened to it and smiled.
The plan was not going to be perfect – it was going to be better than perfect. In the dark he fingered the keypad and pressed send.
He looked up when the cottage door opened. Whitaker stepped out onto the small porch and lit a cigarette. He looked nervous in the dim moonlight; he paced a rut into the porch. The Editor sank deeper into the bush and waited. He would wait as long as it took. A minute later the office door opened again and the dark-haired reporter appeared. They stood close together and talked, but The Editor couldn’t hear them. After a few minutes Whitaker offered her a smoke. She took it, lit it, puffed at it a moment, then threw herself onto Whitaker, arms around his neck, face on his. The Editor was taken aback, Whitaker looked terrified.
This went on for a bit before it became obvious Whitaker was something of an unwilling participant. They talked quietly again for a few moments, she nodded, Whitaker stroked her cheek, she butted the smoke and went back inside. Whitaker puffed at the rest of his cigarette – even in the darkness he looked forlorn and weary.
A perfect time to strike.
He pulled the gun in his belt and stepped to the edge of the bushes. He was 15 feet from his target, who had no idea that death was on the way. The Editor once again took several short, deep breaths and stepped out of the bush.
A pair of headlights swung into the drive.
The car stopped, the driver got out.
“This 916 Queen Street?” the Arab asked.
“Sure is,” Whitaker answered and tossed the smoke.
“I got some pizzas here,” the driver replied.
The Editor cursed silently, put the gun back in his belt, and walked away. The situation was becoming too fluid. He would have to fight another day.
He would not have to wait long.
“But it’s after midnight,” I told the driver, who was likely well aware of the hour.
The pizza guy grabbed a few boxes from the back seat and crunched up the driveway.
“Your partner,” he said. “He… did me a favor a while back. Figure least I can do is bring a few pies when he calls a few minutes past closing.”
“Nice of you,” I replied, wondering what the hell was going on with my partner. “What do I owe you?”
He handed me the boxes and a two-liter Pepsi. “On me.”
“Sweet, thanks,” I said, but the driver lingered.
“You can still tip me,” he said.
I set the pizzas down and gave him a five. He looked at me sideways. I gave him another five. He still didn’t leave.
“Well, are they free or not?”
He gave me a dirty look and went back to his car. I picked up the pies. Just then a second pair of headlights appeared at the end of my drive. It was a regular Cape May traffic jam.
“Don’t get blocked in,” I offered helpfully.
The pizza guy flipped me off, tapped his horn, and the other car backed out. I felt all warm and fuzzy at the display of civility. When the pizza guy was gone it was Donal Lonegan who popped out of the silver Prius.
“Evening,” he said in his Scottish burr.
I nodded. “Thanks for coming.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he replied and took the pizza boxes.
“Thanks. My hand was burning.”
“Not a problem,” he offered. “Any beer?”
“A few,” I answered.
Lonegan nodded at the blue Ford Focus, Daryl’s rental, which filled the parking spot next to my cherry El Camino. “That Vance’s car?”
“Good, I’ve been trying to shag her for months.”
I said, “Fantastic news.”
Lonegan asked me, “Did you get it all out?”
He smiled, “You tackled me today like it was therapy.”
I was going to argue, but what was the point? I had hit him harder than necessary to get him out of the gunman’s sights. And it had felt good to do so. Anything I said to the contrary would have been a lie.
“Yes,” I said. “All better.”
“Good,” Lonegan replied. “Now let’s find this Editor asshole.”
We went inside, had some pizza, soda and beer and came up with a plan so brilliant Sherlock Holmes would cower with fear at our brilliance.