A chilling and compelling new short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
Chapter 6: Best Sellers
I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but when strange things start going down my mind seems to slow. One second I’m going a million beats-per-minute with that nasty reporter from Philadelphia breaking my balls about my PI business, the next I see the gun and everything stops. A man, looks to be about 50, denim jacket, short black hair. The jacket should have been a dead giveaway; it’s hotter than hell outside. When he reaches I see the butt of the silver gun tucked into his belt. He whips it out quick, like he’s practiced a lot.
I yelled, “GUN!”
But Tim DeMarco, as usual, was a step or three ahead of me and on the guy as I shouted. Still, two shots cracked out. There was nothing I could do to stop them so I did my best to try to limit the damage any third or fourth shot might bring. I threw myself left, knocked David McComsey down under the banquet table we were sitting at, then tried to do the same to Sam Howard. Sam, however, outweighed me by about 100lbs so I succeeded only in knocking him sideways on his chair. Still, it got the job done; once he went sideways his momentum took him the rest of the way to the little stage we were on, got his head below sea level.
I tried to keep him pinned down, he didn’t resist. I couldn’t see under the table because of the cloth, but I heard a scuffle from the front of the store where Tim was undoubtedly wrestling the gun from the crazy man with one hand while saving a baby with the other and keeping a rabid pit bull at bay with his left foot, Mr Wonderful. I took a quick glance around and saw that Lonegan was still standing dumbstruck on the far right side of the stage behind the podium. So I coiled myself like a cobra (I told myself) and sprung catlike (sure) across the stage and tackled him. He was pretty thick, not fat, but sturdy. I put some extra heave into my shoulder and drove my legs a little harder as I went into him. To be honest, it felt good to hit Lonegan.
“Ouch!” he yelped as I knocked him from the stage to the floor to his ass. As we landed I heard a third shot, this one muffled. I heard Tim grunt. Not good.
“Tim!” I jumped off Lonegan and ran to the front door where Tim struggled with the gunman. I tore the man off my friend and he spun to the ground. There Tim stood, a big splash of red smeared across his nice white T-shirt.
He looked at me, face ashen, eyes weirdly unfocused, like he saw me but didn’t see me.
“Tim!” I shook his shoulders.
He snapped to. “Huh? oh. It’s okay, it’s not mine.”
I felt him up like a guy getting to second base for the first time but found no source of the blood. Seems he was right. I turned to the second man on the ground. He was curled into a ball, hands covering the left side of his ribcage. A pool of blood began gathering underneath him like in the war movies. I went a little ashen. A weird pounding filled my ears and everything felt far away. Next thing I knew I felt myself falling.
“I got you!” I heard Tim say and then I was in his arms. We must have looked like the cover of a gay bodice-ripper; the suave, handsome, long-haired pirate saving the virginal, hopeless, prince’s son from a fatal fall from a towering cliff and the bone-dashing rocks below.
After a few seconds my head cleared and I stood, trying not to look too embarrassed. We gave each other a quick nod and chuck on the arm.
“Thanks,” we both said.
“What the hell is going on?” Donal Lonegan asked in his thick Scottish burr.
“Safe to say,” I said with a sense of mounting pride, “that you no longer have to worry about The Editor.”
I didn’t realize until after I said it how cheesy it sounded. It only dawned on me after I heard the clicking of digital stills and the whirring of the two news cameras that were now trained on me. I felt like fainting again.
Tim, never one to miss an opportunity to bust my stones, said, “Nice.” He then did the prudent thing and picked up the still-smoking gun from the floor.
To make it worse, Cathy Steltzer came bursting through and hugged me. “My God, Travis! That was amazing!” She smothered my face with kisses.
Now, normally, the girl of my high school dreams kissing my face would lead to altogether different feelings than the mortification I was feeling, but these were altogether different circumstances. I felt myself turning red as all eyes were on me. Not Tim, the actual hero, but me, the guy who just went around tackling everybody. Every face smiled at me, a few people even clapped, I was even starting to feel a little better when I caught Daryl Vance’s sourpuss mug, shaking her head and making some notes. She’d come from the Philadelphia Inquirer. She saw right through me. A fraud.
Still, all in all, a pretty good day’s work; the plan, my plan, working to perfection, the killer revealing himself and no one getting hurt aside from the nutbar in question, and I got the girl. Pretty good day. The Case of the Editor, all wrapped up nice and neat.
“It’s not him,” I heard Lonegan say as Cathy worked her teeth across my neck.
“Pardon?” I asked, pushing Cathy away without realizing.
Lonegan repeated, “It’s not him.”
He and Tim DeMarco were kneeling at the man’s side, trying to stem the bleeding from his side. There they were, trying to save him while I stood like an action hero dork basking in his own glory. I knelt down with them.
I asked, “How do you know?”
“Good question,” Tim said.
“Because I know this man,” Lonegan answered. “He’s no serial killer. This is Lou Mandich. I wrote an expose on his father two summers ago. He worked for the city prosecutor’s office and used it to front a drug ring, offering sweetheart plea deals in exchange for a cut of the profits. Pretty small potatoes compared with the real bad stuff going on.”
“But?” I asked.
“But John Mandich, county prosecutor and pillar of the community, didn’t think it very small potatoes. Just before warrants came down he went into his attic and hung himself. His suicide note copped to all of it. Lou here is his son.”
Tim said, “But this guy must be 50, 55.”
Lonegan shrugged. “The old man was 80 when he did himself in. He just got old, doesn’t mean you lose your taste for cash and women.”
“Guess not,” I agreed.
“The son, Lou… this guy, he swore revenge on me, started writing letters a year ago.”
Tim asked, “Cops couldn’t grab him?”
Lonegan pressed a fresh batch of paper towels over the man’s wounds, but it looked to be too late. “He was very careful with his wording. Remember, his father was a lawyer, he knew his way around a sentence.”
Tim said, “Isn’t that great.”
I played pragmatic. “Eh, wouldn’t be any fun if it was this easy.”
Just then an EMT crew arrived and ordered us out of the way. Right behind them were the CMPD, officers Genaro and Austin in the lead. My friends on the force. Once they saw me through the window they gave a look that said, “Aw jeez, this guy again?” along with some pretty emphatic head shakes.
It made me feel, in an instant, like they weren’t my friends at all, never had been, but were the cool kids in high school who tolerated my nerdy presence because they needed something from me. Seemed my effusive praise of them in the press after Dead & Breakfast only bought me a degree of cooperation, not real kinship. I had no reason to expect them all to start suddenly thinking of me as this great guy, but… I thought they had. This stabbed at me deeply and I didn’t know why.
Yes. Yes I did.
I was never a guy with a lot of friends, even growing up. The kids who hung out with me were those who themselves had no one to hang out with. There were no common goals or hobbies; we just hung out wherever after school – arcade, drug store, someone’s basement, then eventually drifted apart and into a new clique of, well, not exactly friends, but people who would put up with us. This followed me into adulthood. My two years of college yielded a brief respite when I made 43 really good friends, but that was only because I’d pledged a fraternity, Delta Chi. They collected dues. They were paid to be my friends. And the last few years, the same. There were guys I’d hang out with after work in my construction and carpentry days, have a few beers at the C-View, watch a ball game, but no real tried-and-true friendships. Even Tim, who I now considered my best friend, was a product of circumstance. He just happened to be in the Pilot House that day we broke Dead & Breakfast, which just happened to bring him into my life. Hell, I don’t know if Tim feels any great warmth for me beyond his paycheck. Sure, he’s saved my life on occasion, but that doesn’t means he likes me.
I was starting to feel very sad when Cathy Steltzer came over.
“That was really, really brave, Travis. You should be proud. He could have shot you!”
“It’s part of the job,” I said, trying to sound manly, but I mostly just felt tired.
Now the cops were involved and it would be a zoo from here on out. This, this plan, this was our one real chance at bagging this guy without 1,000 law enforcement-types being involved. This was our one chance at surprising him and we blew it. Well, we didn’t, crazy Lou Mandich and his bleeding lung did, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
In all likelihood The Editor was watching this fiasco on the local cable channel and booking a plane ticket to Tahiti.
Cathy Steltzer was holding my arm and stroking my neck but I barely felt her. I could only watch with mounting dread as Genaro and Austin climbed onto the deck of chattel House and made their way to the Exit Zero store. This was not going to be pleasant. They were stalled for a moment by the EMTs wheeling out Mandich; they’d plugged him full of stuff and put that little oxygen mask on his face. For a moment I envisioned him as a cartoon cat just riddled with a machine gun who takes a drink of water which then shoots out of him like a sprinkler. Funny the things you think of when you’re life’s crashing down around you.
“Mr Whitaker,” came a sharp voice behind me. “Any comment on this shocking turn of events?”
I turned to see Daryl Vance, the reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, looking unperturbed, thrusting a tape recorder in my face. I guess after years on the Philly beat a press conference shooting in Cape May was not that big a deal.
I cleared my throat and shrugged Cathy away. Again. “Thanks to the quick thinking and swift actions of my partner Tim DeMarco, it appears the only injury today was sustained by the gunman, who is apparently a disgruntled local. More than that I shouldn’t say.”
Daryl asked, “So are you telling me and my readers that this man was NOT, in fact, The Editor, the serial killer who has been preying on local journalists and authors?”
I fixed her with a gaze and said nothing.
She said, “Was today, in fact, anything more than an elaborate ruse meant to draw The Editor out of hiding?”
I kept quiet.
She asked, “Are you not, in fact, currently in the employ of Donal Lonegan? Weren’t you hired to protect authors Sam Howard and David McComsey?”
Now I was mad. The plan was of little value if it was common knowledge. I looked at Tim, he shrugged and shook his head. I looked at Lonegan, he spread his hands to proclaim his innocence. I wheeled to McComsey, who by now was among the crowd near the front door.
“Give me a break,” he said.
I turned back to the little stage behind us. And there stood Sam Howard, all 300+ pounds of him, looking for all the world like a five-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“She really liked my book,” he said, face red, earlobes trembling.
I said nothing.
“Was a good book,” Daryl said.
“I’m sure it was,” I said. “But worth jeopardizing our plan today? That good?”
Daryl shrugged. “I’m a reporter, I use sources.”
Sam blanched from red to white. “You… used me?”
Daryl nodded. “But I really did like the book.”
“You mind explaining yourself?” I asked. “I’ve got about 20 seconds before the Cape May Police haul me in and ream me out something awful for not letting them in on this.”
She said, “It was pretty simple, really. The Editor stuff has been out there for a while now, Sam emailed me about the presser today, thought it might help him move a few more copies of Garden State of Eden, told me you were going to be here. Didn’t take a criminologist to figure that a handsome, telegenic private eye announcing a book deal during an author-killing spree might be a little more than what it seemed. Took me about three minutes to get it out of Sam.”
“I feel dirty,” Sam said. No one replied.
I was mad, but I had to give it to her for figuring it out. And hey, we did draw a shooter out today, just not the right one, so a civil good had still been done. Wait a minute…
“Did you say handsome?”
“Let’s go, Whitaker,” Officer Tony Genarro said as he grabbed me by the elbow.
“I’ll meet you at City Hall,” Tim said.
“Me too,” Cathy added.
It was one of the three worst days of my life, but as Officer Shawn Austin grabbed my other elbow and led me away, I couldn’t help but smile.
Daryl Vance thought I was handsome.
Three hours and a solid ass-chewing later I was back in my office with Tim and Cathy. I hadn’t technically done anything illegal so they couldn’t bust me, but they made it pretty clear I’d used up all my goodwill down at the station and any favors I had coming were cancelled forthwith. That didn’t bother me so much; I still had my guy on the inside that Genaro, Austin and Chief Lear didn’t know about.
No, what bothered me was the grim look on Tim DeMarco’s face after a routine Google search of the day’s events found the following headline…
“Cape May Detectives Foil Gun Plot.” The sub-headline, the one that got me all frumpy, read: “Dead Writers Book For Sale on Amazon?”
The content was credited to a recent Philadelphia Inquirer post by Daryl Vance. In about 1,200 words she concisely chronicled the afternoon’s events at the Exit Zero store, and told how a cursory internet search showed two new books available on Amazon.com, penned by victims of The Editor, all with bylines that included the killer’s moniker.
“Including,” she wrote, “one by my uncle, Cape May Ocean & Globe reporter Christian North.”
Her uncle. “Shit.”