A chilling and compelling new short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
Chapter 4: Exit Zero Hero
My name is Travis Whitaker. I’m a private investigator in Cape May, NJ, and I’m not very good with surprises; not a good trait in a PI as surprises are my stock-in-trade; financial, karmic, what have you, but here we are. Actually, one surprise is okay, it’s two I have trouble with.
The first wasn’t so bad, bad being relative to the giver or receiver of the surprise – seven south Jersey-based writers had been killed in the last two weeks and their publishing house wanted my help. While there was one writer I wouldn’t mind taking to the woodshed given his treatment of me following the Bed & Breakfast case last summer (which he had oh-so-cleverly dubbed “Dead & Breakfast”), it was my deeply-held belief that killing a writer only served to vindicate their feeling that the world was out to get them. The last thing you want to do is vindicate a writer.
No, the real surprise came from the call that came two minutes after that one. The one from Cathy Steltzer, a name I hadn’t thought of in about 15 years, after high school, when she made it clear that she and I would never be more than friends. This despite years, and I mean years, of best friendship combined with a handful of make-out sessions after bad break-ups with other people. The break-ups were always hers. I would have made out with her after all of my bad break-ups, but I had had exactly one. In seventh grade. Jenny Horner. She was a little trailer-trashy but in seventh grade if a girl was willing to hold your hand and say you were “going out” she could have looked like Ernest Borgnine. Plus, I would rather have chewed on tin foil than kissed a girl in seventh grade. I know that makes me sound prudish what with seventh graders today crafting their own cell phone pornos, but that’s not something I like to think about. The point is, had I known then that my adolescent, one-way relationship with Cathy would mirror most of my “grown-up” relationships, well… I don’t know what I would have done, but at least I’d have been more aware of the fact that I was everyone’s favorite rebound. There were worse things to be, I guess.
Man. Cathy Steltzer.
“What’s doing, Bwana?” Tim DeMarco asked me.
Tim DeMarco was my business partner and closest thing to a best friend. There was nothing to say so I just shook my head.
“Gotcha,” he said.
Tim was a world-class ball-breaker, but he also knew when to leave it alone. A rare gift.
We were on our way to the Exit Zero Store & Global Headquarters in West Cape May. Until last summer I was only vaguely aware of Exit Zero magazine and the culture surrounding it. I became a much keener reader after their editor-in-chief, a transplanted Scot called Donal Lonegan, took a few potshots at me following Dead & Breakfast. While all the rest of the local, regional, and even some national media were busy heaping praise upon me, Lonegan was, what’s the term, taking the piss, implying that breaking the case of my life was more a product of luck than any inherent skill.
It pissed me off… because he was right. And it pissed me off that it pissed me off so much.
“Okay then,” Tim said after more nothing.
He was annoyed, but so was I, dammit. Too much information trying to cram itself into my tiny little brain – multiple homicides, ex-flames, the itch in my scalp. It was all too much.
“Take a right here,” Tim said so I did.
We were on Sunset just past the 7-11, a 10-minute ride from my Queen Street office, five in the off-season. We pulled into Chattel House Village, which was actually a row of four stores. My car, a cherry 1976 El Camino, kicked up a nice dust cloud in the gravel lot as we swung into a spot. The stores were all pleasant looking. From left to right they were the Bird House of Cape May (yellow with green trim), the Butterfly Tea Room (orange with blue), next to it was the Home Fashion & Fun (pink with mauve), then Exit Zero Global HQ, all aqua and blue. It was an aesthetically pleasing, if not quite masculine, color palette. I wasn’t sure if the shop owners were gay but the guy who painted them clearly was. I mean… mauve?
But no, that’s mean. It’s Exit Zero I’m upset with, not the gays. I like them fine. I was even a metrosexual myself for a half a summer when Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and jeans with striped button-downs and expensive leather bowling shoes were all the rage. This phase ended abruptly one evening at the Ugly Mug when the girl I’d been doing quite well with allowed me to walk her home, only to confess at her door that, “I love you guys. You’re nice, polite, and I never have to worry about getting jumped.”
Somewhere there is a patron of the Cape May Salvation Army walking around with a dozen $75 polos. Still, I do miss Paige Davis and Trading Spaces. The years do slip by, don’t they?
I lit up a cigarette and glanced around. I’ve made a habit of this. Ever since that one chance look-back where I happened to see the rubbery slice of jalapeno that broke Dead and Breakfast, I tried to make a visual inventory of my surroundings. I knew it was impossible to memorize everything I saw, but you never know what might stick in your subconscious and get dredged up later in a moment of duress. Or boredom.
Wasn’t much to see here, though; a couple dozen parking spots, a few tons of gravel. I walked onto the deck that ran the length of the storefronts, sucked away the last half-inch of the smoke and tossed it into the lot.
“Nice,” Tim said, hooking a thumb towards the butt tower six inches to my right.
I shrugged. “Biodegradable.”
Then in we went. The door beeped annoyingly as we entered, but that was the only annoying thing about the shop. The white walls were adorned with a dozen different types of shirt, tee and sweat. Framed photos filled the gaps, most from bygone eras, sepia-toned and lovely. The dozen vibrant paintings were by a local fellow named Trotti, whose milieu was photorealism. I don’t know – looked an awful lot like tracing to me, but what do I know? We wandered in, got the lay of the land, then a voice called from above.
“B’right with you,” it said in a hard Scottish burr. The ceiling vaulted almost straight up, and 20 feet in from the front façade was the open second floor, presumably the “Global HQ” from the noise of tapping keyboards that drifted down.
Tim and I shrugged at each other and continued poking around. The main selling floor was laid out in a big U, divided by a wall featuring Trotti’s art. Graphic line drawings and old-timey cameras and typewriters were also on display. Appropriate. On the far right wall were several large antique bookcases adorned with many books of many varieties; art collections by various locals, a couple of poetry selections, and something called The Butcher of the Point by Jack Henry Owens, which purported to be a true story involving the author, Dr. Jekyll and Jack the Ripper. Sounded far-fetched and convoluted to me, but the author had an impressive array of Jersey Shore exposes to his credit.
But the two books most prominently featured were a disparate pair – one was a gargantuan coffee table book called Garden State of Eden by Sam Howard, an apparently-thorough history of Cape May, which is widely known as the country’s first seaside resort, according to the back cover blurb. The other was a slim fiction anthology called Cape Fear, NJ, with pulpy titles like “Death by Innocence” and “Blood Key”, by someone called David McComsey. Both books claimed to be the best of their genre ever published. This was probably not true.
The Scottish voice called out again, “One moment, please.”
Tim and I shrugged again. Annoyed. At least I was.
I turned back to the books. The thicker one, Eden, was on the front table. Two tastefully-stacked towers of the book sat amid a mass of news clippings and internet print-outs. A vinyl banner hung behind the table. On it was the book’s title in tall letters with the words “As Featured on Rachael Ray & Oprah!” And indeed, on the table were articles culled from various newspapers and magazines, including O!, about Sam Howard’s meteoric rise through East Coast publishing, and a feature from the Philadelphia Inquirer praising Eden as “the definitive book of its kind” and “the next generation of history through photojournalism”. Huh, maybe it was the best book of its genre ever published. That or Daryl Vance, who penned the article, was a guy who really liked his coffee table books.
On the second table sat Cape Fear. By physical comparison it was about a tenth the book Eden was. This table featured not the eye-catching vinyl sign, but a simple sheet of 8.5×11 paper in an acrylic case boasting it as “The Hottest Beach Read of the Summer.” No pictures, no clippings, no Oprah. I immediately began rooting for it. Might explain why I’m such a lousy gambler.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” the Scottish voice asked.
I started a little – I never heard the guy come down the stairs. Although we’d never actually met before, I knew immediately it was Donal Lonegan, whose rags-to-riches story of leaving the heady world of New York publishing with $600 in his pocket and a dream of starting his own publication in tiny Cape May was the philosophical engine that drove the magazine. And everyone in town had heard the story. At least twice. Usually in close proximity to a bar.
“Travis Whitaker,” I said in a flat voice. “My partner, Tim DeMarco.”
“I know who you are, Mr. Whitaker,” Lonegan said and thrust a hand towards mine, taking it without waiting. “Thank you so much for coming, we’re in quite a state here. Please, follow me.”
He took off back up the steps to the office, Tim and I followed.
The office, such as it was, smelt strongly of equal parts coffee and perspiration. There were three large desks, two smaller ones, and several whirring computer towers with enormous monitors. Stacks of bills and invoices were piled helter skelter, tilting precariously like a leaning tower of visa.
“Take a seat,” Lonegan motioned towards a couple of distressed computer chairs in front of his desk, the largest. I guess it was natural for the lead dog to have the biggest sled, but it still bothered me. Anyway, we sat.
“So, this where the magic happens?” Tim asked. A perfect opener.
“Tis,” Lonegan smiled and began to talk about his favorite subject. Himself. “Started it all with $600 and a dream.”
“My first issue, seven years ago now, was eight pages, four ads and a dozen photos. Last Wednesday’s? 136 pages, over 250 photos and almost 200 ads. Know why it’s 136 pages?”
Tim and I said nothing. We didn’t need to.
“It’s 136 pages because I can’t make it any bigger without going to a full-color glossy. That’s why. And I’d make it a full-color glossy if I thought my advertisers wouldn’t have a stroke at quadruple the rates. But one thing at a time, no?”
“Mr. Lonegan,” I started. “I hate to seem short, but I’m here at your request for a consult. If we could get down to brass tacks…”
Lonegan half smiled at me. I wasn’t trying to sound like a dick, but I guess I did anyway. Even Tim was looking at me cockeyed.
“Sure, sure,” he mangled through his thick accent. “But I’d like to get one thing straight.”
I fixed him with a steady gaze.
“I understand if you’re upset with me. I wasn’t kind after Dead & Breakfast. But you need to know, that was just business. My job is to sell papers…”
“The paper is free,” I said.
Lonegan continued, “It is, yes. But the more copies I get into more hands the more I can charge my advertisers. It’s a pretty simple capitalist construct. The bigger the headline the more copies I move the more money I make.”
“At the expense of what?” I asked, a little quaver in my voice.
“Mr. Whitaker, I know you may find this hard to believe, but I admire the work you’ve done. The headlines, the pictures, all of that… it was just a way to move papers. Nothing more.”
I was squeezing my right hand open and closed into a fist. I guess tension was running pretty high because I noticed all the typing had stopped. The other two writers were now staring at my back. I could feel them.
“Fine,” I said and exhaled without realizing I’d been holding my breath. “Water under the bridge.”
Lonegan clapped his hands. “Excellent! Do you take a cash or check deposit?”
“We’re hired?” Tim asked.
“You were hired,” Lonegan said, “the moment Whitaker there saw my face and didn’t smash it with a rake.”
“We prefer cash,” Tim answered.
Lonegan took a few bills out of an envelope and gave them to Tim, who said, “We’re happy to take the work, Mr. Lonegan, but I’m not sure what we can do that the police aren’t already doing.”
Lonegan replied, “As you noticed downstairs, I dabble in book publishing. Fact is, all the writers killed in the last few weeks were under contract to me, well, to Exit Zero Publishing. I am now out seven books, several of which I expected to be decent sellers. Now, before you start thinking ill of me, I grieve for the loss of each of them, though I knew them only in a cursory sense. I’d only met them a few times, enough to get a sense of the books and if I thought they were saleable. I did, so I signed them. We were not friends in any sense of the term.”
I tried not to sound like a jerk when I said, “And I’m sure there’s been a significant financial loss as well. Plus the fact they were humans.” Okay, so maybe I did want to sound like a jerk.
“Somewhat,” Lonegan replied. “I’d only invested enough to ensure they would keep working for the rest of it, a very small advance, which I would recoup if they failed to deliver.”
Tim said, “Fair enough.”
“Standard practice,” Lonegan said, looking at me. “I’d love to give every writer who walks in a ten million dollar, six-book deal, but I simply cannot. One lousy investment can break us.”
I asked, “Why us? Why now?”
“Because,” Lonegan replied, “I know you’re good at what you do, and the two guys behind you, trying to pretend they’re not listening, they’re my star writers. They have books coming out this summer and they, and I, would like very much for them to live long enough to finish them, make their advances and turn a profit.”
I swiveled in my chair – looking back at me were the two faces of the men who’d been typing. One of them was jovial and round, the other morose and thin. Both were masks of fear.
I extended a hand. “Howard and McComsey, I presume?”