A chilling and compelling new short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
Chapter 3: Love on the Rocks
Justine Smith was young, and pretty for a journalist; young and pretty for anyone, really. At 30, with a sharply attractive face framed by shoulder-length brown hair, all of which sat atop a trim runner’s body, she was a good catch. However, a young and pretty female journalist under 40 was an entirely different animal. To the ink-stained-wretch crowd she may as well have been 1987-era Cindy Crawford.
While Justine wasn’t supermodel pretty, she still had the goods. She spent as much time fending off the clumsy advances of her awkward co-workers at Jersey Shore Monthly as she did writing about the Jersey Shore itself (which anyone with more than six working brain cells agreed was nothing like the Jersey Shore that MTV portrayed; that Jersey Shore bore as much resemblance to the actual Jersey Shore as Glenn Beck did to Keith Olbermann).
And besides her job at JSM, Justine was a reasonably successful blogger and self-published author. Her “Shore Thing with Justine” blog and accompanying Shore Points: Everything You Need to Know about New Jersey from Exit 36 to Exit 0 book were climbing, ever so slowly, both the sales and blogosphere charts. Slowly. Painfully so. But climb they did. Public awareness of her was growing, undoubtedly. In the last two years she’d appeared on all three Philadelphia morning news shows as “Jersey Shore Expert Justine Smith” and dispensed knowledge on topics ranging from the best restaurants south of the Walt Whitman (Cucina Rosa on the Washington Street Mall in Cape May) to the best roller coaster (the Sea Serpent on Morey’s Pier in Wildwood) to the best McDonald’s (North Cape May, probably the best McDonald’s in any county in any state in any country anywhere on any planet).
She had also recently begun a weekly segment on the local NBC affiliate, NBC 40 out of Atlantic City, which was basically a visual representation of her book and blog – best beaches, night clubs, karaoke bars. The segment, “Shore Things with Justine” (apparently, there was an infinite number of ways to use “Shore” as a title pun) was still in its infancy at six weeks, and clearly visible to anyone watching that she was fighting a losing battle against the show’s wardrobe designer, who appeared to have raided Phylicia Rashad’s closet in 1989.
Justine, most comfortable in age-appropriate skirts and blouses, even more comfortable in jeans and supremely comfortable in running gear, most often appeared on TV in ill-fitting, outdated pant suits that would have made Hillary Clinton cringe. Her hair was power-sprayed into a close approximation of the lead actress in any Whitesnake-era music video. Shoulder pads, crunchy bangs, pleats – nothing was out of bounds.
When reviewing tapes she at first found the show nearly unwatchable, but once past the surface awfulness she found she was actually doing some quality work. And the show, like her book and blog, was slowly gaining viewers. In six weeks her clout had grown such that she was able to convince her producer (“convince” meaning “let him land a paw on her thigh that was not immediately de-coupled from its wrist, therefore promising the possibility of further thigh-feeling”) to ditch the wardrobe department altogether and let her dress and make herself up at home. Not quite Jessica Savitch-level free reign, but progress was where you found it.
The TV spot was fine and all, but her real ambition, her true heart’s desire since first seeing Redford and Hoffman in All the President’s Men in her high school social studies class, was to become a muckraking political go-getter of the Woodward-Bernstein variety, which is why she found herself here, in Cape May Point, peering through the darkness at the Concrete Ship on Sunset Beach as the clock neared midnight. What began five weeks earlier as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge series of cryptic, anonymous posts on her “Shore Thing” blog slowly became a dozen or so exchanged emails, culminating in this – a secret meeting in the dead of night in a quiet part of town. It was not Watergate. But even Woodard and Bernstein had to start somewhere, right?
The tipster was a bolt from the blue for Justine, who was working hard on her next book but was struggling to make it compelling. Sure, a detailed history of Jersey shore diners from Atlantic City to Cape May and every town in between would be interesting to her and, perhaps, her mother. But no one outside of that very small demographic would want to read, let alone pay for the right to read, her so-far dry accounts of old train cars and WWII-era laundromats being converted into greasy spoon eateries. Of this, Justine was well aware. She was also well aware of a slew of other books coming out by South Jersey-based writers covering politics, sports, beach dredging (if possible, an even worse topic than diners), the underground gay community and several other topics which, had she thought of them first, she would now be investigating.
But as it was, a book about diners, although it would make an interesting coffee table book that no one would read, needed an angle, and the anonymous tipster offered a doozy – a Da Vinci Code-like conspiracy amongst the New Jersey Mafia, the Catholic Church and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra that led to almost complete control of the NJ diner syndicate by the Greeks. Justine found it all a little hard to swallow, but the tipster had offered some tantalizing bits of proof in their email exchanges – names, dates and enough shady-looking Google search results to bait the hook. And Justine bit. She knew that doing so may have been a sign of desperation and lack of faith in her book, and maybe of something a little more deep seated.
But she also knew that if this desperate act did not pan out she would reconsider writing the book, even though that meant paying back the advance she had already received. And spent.
Whatever. All she could do at the moment was keep plowing ahead and try to finish the damn thing. And do it as best as she knew how, which meant getting this information from the tipster and, if necessary, using her feminine wiles to do so.
She hoped the informant was single and lonely. Then she shuddered and felt a little dirty. Nevertheless, she unlooped her hair from its pony tail and let it spill over her shoulders, shaking it out seductively.
From her purse she heard the faint buzzing of her cellphone alarm – midnight.
“Where is he?” she whispered to herself. She was pretty sure he was a he. There was nothing in the blog posts or emails that belied any femininity and the voice on the phone seemed masculine enough, although they did wonders with voice-changers nowadays. What was once the parlance of spy novels and scary movies was now available with your everyday, garden variety Transformers Happy Meal. She wondered if this is what Eisenhower meant by “military industrial complex.”
She took a deep, salt-tinged breath and went through her checklist – sexy short-shorts? Check. Tight tank top? Check. Mace? Check. Running shoes? Double-check.
She wanted the information to write the best book she could, and she would cross certain lines to do so, but she was also prepared to turn tail and run at the drop of a hat should things turn weird. She’d recently completed her first Philadelphia marathon, finishing in the women’s top 50%, and it was only 2.7 miles to the well-lit center of Cape May from where she stood, so she was sure she could outrun any pasty internet-dweller who might try to cop more than a feel. A feel she could deal with – more than that and the guy better have pictures of the Pope shaking hands with Michael Corleone. Or something more Greek.
She’d left her car in the lot behind the Sunset Beach Gift Shop (which was one of the biggest sellers of her Shore Points book – she made a note to stop by in the morning and drop off another dozen copies) and was prepared to sprint for her life if necessary, although the idea seemed preposterous.
So she stood and waited. The minutes ticked by. At 10 after she began to feel foolish. What kind of journalist sets up a secret midnight meeting with an anonymous blog poster an hour from her home? At quarter after, she moved from the spot under the single streetlight in the parking lot that skimmed the beach, and over to the bleached wood veranda outside the Sunset Beach Grille, and took a seat in the little gazebo. She drew a Benson and Hedges Light 100 from her bag and lit it, glancing furtively as she did so. The skullduggery was a bit silly given the hour and desolate surroundings, but as a runner and blogger she was a militant non-smoker, except for the two to 20 times per day she really needed one.
She lit the long smoke, dropped the Phillies lighter back in her bag, and fished out her cell, flipped through the phone book to the Es and clicked on the name she wanted. The line rang in her ear and she stared down at the glowing red nub of the cigarette. As she did so, she saw him. Or her. She saw it, out on the jetty – tall and thin in a raincoat or some kind of long jacket. She glanced at her watch – 12:20am. From somewhere nearby she thought she heard music. Behind her? Then it was gone.
Of course, it made perfect sense that the tipster would show up before her, scout out a superior vantage point, make sure Justine had come alone as promised. Feeling like a fraud because of the cigarette and like an idiot for not spying her observer earlier, she rose and walked onto the beach toward the jetty.
In three minutes she would be dead. Dead and stripped of her notes. The “man” on the jetty had been a ruse, a hat and coat slung over the “Keep off the Jetty” sign which now, laying as she did atop the cold, wet rocks, struck her as ironic. Or sinister. She’d need time to figure which. She didn’t have that.
Her notes. How stupid could she be? Only now, with the killer poised over her back, knife pressed into the base of her skull, did it make sense why he would ask her to bring them. It seemed odd at the time – now not so much. She figured out quickly, as the first flash of the knife blade glinted in the moonlight before settling between her ribs and slicing through a lung, who her killer was. What she didn’t understand was the why. As he fished through her bag and pockets, finding her precious notes, she suddenly knew that as well.
Of course, she tried to reason with her killer. Did the “I promise I’ll never tell, just take what you want” routine, to no avail. When the end came it was a bit of a relief, just as her killer had promised. Once the knife went yay deep she felt nothing, which made her feel better. He didn’t finish her, but left her there to bleed out. Her face cold on the stone (she could still feel her face), she watched him walk away and thought that she would wear just about any awful pants suit in existence if she could live long enough to film another “Shore Thing” segment on where to view rutting horseshoe crabs. She then grew very sad at her lost career prospects and, more importantly, her hundreds-bordering-on-thousands of readers who would miss her future work.
A tear ran down her cheek and she closed her eyes. She would never open them again.
On the bright side, in the days and weeks following her death, as the grisly details of her slaying spread across the internet and publishing world, Sunset Beach Gifts was going to sell a lot more than 12 copies of Shore Points.
She had joined an exclusive, yet growing, list of slaughtered journalists the killer had recenty notched on his belt…
Hank Schlister, of the Cape May County Herald, forced into a wood chipper 13 days prior at the home of Dave Benoit, owner/ operator of Benoit’s Tree Service & Landscaping Co. His book, Deadly Shores: The Secret, Awful Truth About Dredging, would go unpublished. Bits of his bone and hair still slick the Benoit family’s garage floor. He was 51.
Brian Crandall, of Cape May Magazine, bludgeoned to death with a Don Clendenon ash baseball bat 10 days prior. His book, New Jersey Sports Heroes: Six Profiles, would go unpublished. His body was found quartered at first, second, third and home on the Cape May Little League field on Lafayette Street. He was 33.
Ray Stein, of Cape May Stage Monthly, poisoned with hemlock nine days prior. His book, Cape Gay: The Not-So-Secret Secret of America’s Outest Shore Town, would go unpublished. His death, at first ruled a suicide, would later be called murder when, along with the hemlock in his flask, coroners found a knife in his back. It was all very Shakesperean. He was 48.
Barry Chisholm, of The Shoppe, drowned in his own hot tub seven days prior. His book, Never Order Bisque on Tuesday: The Dirty Underworld of the Cape May Restaurant Scene, although highly anticipated, would go unpublished. His death, first ruled accidental, was reclassified as suicide when copious amounts of liquor and Ambien were found in his stomach, and later reclassified as homicide when bruising in his trachea made it clear he was forced to consume the depressants. He was 33.
Lauren Cotton, of the Lower Township Gazette, mangled to death by a taffy-pulling machine four days prior. Her book, A Little Over: The Dirty Secret Fudge Retailers DON’T Want You To Know, would go unpublished. Her death, first ruled accidental, was reclassified as homicide when security tapes showed she was pushed into the machine by a dark figure in a long coat. The killer, aware of the placement of the cameras, kept his face hidden from view. She was 47.
Christian North, of the Cape May Ocean & Globe, pulverized with a shovel on the Gurney Street jetty two days earlier. His book, Cape May Political Corruption: A Tradition of Excellence, would also go unpublished as most of his brain now lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, some 30 yards off the shoreline, and was now home to a lovely family of Sand Crabs. He was 55.
Justine Smith, of South Jersey Monthly magazine, gashed to pieces on the Sunset Beach jetty in Cape May Point. Her book, working title Dirty Dining: The Mafia’s Connection to the Vatican and the Great New Jersey Diner Syndicate, would go unpublished due to a sudden case of 17 knife wounds. She was 30.
In her last living moments, Justine had felt so very alone. And while in the physical sense she was, in the spiritual sense she needn’t have worried. She joined six other local journalists, all with books pending, in the ever after, all dead by the same hand. Although the killer was getting less inventive with each strike, Cape May police were certain it was a serial job. A serial rush job. Seven victims aged 30 to 55. A serial killer in Cape May, only four years after the infamous Karaoke Killer blazed a trail through town during the hectic summer of 2006. The Karaoke Killer, however, had never been caught, and Cape May police were determined not to let this one, the one they’d started calling The Editor, get away.