The chilling conclusion to the latest short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
Chapter 9: Death By The Sea
Donal Lonegan and I parked at the cove, at the far south end of Beach Drive in front of the Cove Restaurant, which was locked in a Ragnarok-like battle with city hall over sand drifts. I thought it a little silly to buy a restaurant on the beach then sue the city over sand on your porch, but one look at the deposits obscuring a solid one-third of the building made me think maybe they had a case.
We hopped out of my cherry 1976 El Camino to meet Book Fan, a Facebook friend I was certain was the serial killer known as The Editor, who had ‘lured’ me to the scene much as he did his other seven victims. I brought Lonegan along in case he recognized anyone and because, let’s face it, going out to a dark jetty to meet someone you think is going to kill you is pretty scary.
I took my snub-nosed .38 from its suede shoulder holster and gave it another once over. It was ready. It was always ready. Was I?
“You ready?” Lonegan asked in his thick Scottish accent.
I swigged the last of my coffee. “As I’ll ever be. You?”
“Ready. Though I’m not sure why you had to have Wawa coffee when the goddamned 7-11 is right there by my office.”
I replied, “I know you tea-loving European types don’t get a lot of our Americanisms. Let’s add mocha raspberry Wawa coffee to the list and move on, okay? You sure you’re up for this?”
“I’m sure,” he answered, and lifted his shirt to show me the silver 9mm tucked into his belt. This scared the hell out of me. There was nothing worse than an amateur with a gun, unless that amateur was a Scot.
“Don’t worry, I’m practiced.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
As we headed to the beach I made small talk. “So why are you selling your dead writer’s books? A bit morose, no?”
“I think you mean macabre,” he answered. “And yes, it is. But I’ve got an investment to recoup. I don’t know how the killer managed to do all this without getting traced, but even if I only get a few cents for every copy sold, it’ll help defray costs. It sounds awful, but it’s not like I’m Knopf. I can’t swallow a huge loss and whip out the new Crichton.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Not even Knopf is Knopf anymore.”
Lonegan said, “He’s a clever git, I’ll give him that.”
I nodded in the dark. “Not as clever as he thinks.”
“What do you mean?”
I explained. “He’s done an exceptional job hiding the money, wiring it to a numbered offshore account. This is true. But we’ll get him soon.”
I made a big deal out of scanning the area. “My inside police guy gave me some good info. Looks like they’re going to be able to track him down through the companies that are actually printing the book.”
I had no idea if this was true.
“But I checked,” Lonegan said. “He left a maze. He’s using all different printers at once; Press & Journal in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Wisconsin Web Offset. He’s even got one running out of Kowloon, Hong Kong. How did the Cape May Police track him down?”
I shrugged, “My guy wouldn’t say, exactly. Only that he left a clue behind.”
“Good on them,” he said.
We reached the promenade.
“It’s time,” I said.
We faced south toward the cove. There wasn’t much beach from the street to the jetty, but the going was slow due to the darkness and the rocks jutting up from the sand. Each time I saw this pre-jetty I imagined that on the first day of the job the guys dumped the rocks on this spot, then the foreman told them, “No, guys, 100 feet that way.” And rather than reload and move the rocks they just moved on. Probably union guys.
We picked our way past the rocks and neared the actual jetty.
“There,” Lonegan said.
There was enough moonlight on the water to backlight the rocks and make it impossible to see anything on them.
“You see him?” he asked.
I squinted. There seemed to be something. What exactly I couldn’t tell you. From here it looked like a scarecrow.
“I think so,” I said. “Keep that gun in your belt.”
Lonegan patted me on the back. “You first, Mr. Hero.”
“Good title for the book,” I said and strode toward the jetty, Lonegan a few steps behind me.
The figure on the jetty was either a very tall woman or a very thin man. Maybe a very thin man who dwelt in his mother’s basement and got his jollies meeting PI’s in ridiculous places. If I was lucky that’s who it was. But then I wouldn’t be able to close the case. Better a live, failed PI than a dead, successful one, right?
Now we were right at the foot of the rock walk. The sea was calm, as it generally was at the cove, the tide so broken by the many jetties that it seemed to surrender down here.
I called out, “Hello! Book Fan? It’s Travis! I’m here with my editor! Can we come out?”
The dark figure said nothing, which I took as a good sign. I took a few steps onto the rocks.
“We’re coming out! Just relax! We’ve brought a check!”
I crept out further. Footing was treacherous in the dark on the wet rocks so I took my time.
I heard Lonegan behind me whisper, “Go get ‘im, big man.”
What happened next happened pretty fast.
As I got closer to the man, it became pretty clear it was not a man at all, rather just a coat and hat slung over the “DO NOT WALK ON THE JETTY” sign.
“You should have minded the sign, boy,” someone said.
I heard two loud cracks and felt two sledgehammers hit my back. Then I was face down on the rocks, lungs empty, bright yellow stars bursting in my eyes.
This was not how it was supposed to end.
“Drop it!” somebody shouted. I heard two more gunshots, then I saw The Editor’s lifeless face on the rocks next to mine.
That’s how it was supposed to end.
Tim DeMarco watched as Travis and Lonegan left the Exit Zero Store. When the El Camino cleared the parking lot, Officers Austin and Genarro tapped on the door. Tim opened it.
“Upstairs,” he told Genarro.
“With me,” Austin said to Tim and they made for the squad car around the corner.
Time was short so they wasted none. Officer Shawn Austin got them from West Cape May to the cove in 90 seconds.
“That was badass,” Tim said.
They parked two blocks away and jogged to the cove.
“You sure your boy can buy us enough time?” Austin asked.
Tim answered, “If there’s one thing Travis can do it’s cause a distraction.”
“Let’s hope so.”
They trotted down Beach past the Cove Restaurant and onto the sand. They took a wide route to avoid leaving suspicious footprints, running up the shore and making a bee line to the water. Then they sloshed their way back toward the jetty, took up positions about two-thirds of the way down, and settled in.
Both men leaned on the rocks, taking air in deep gulps.
“You’re in good shape,” Austin said.
Tim replied, “Bowflex, jogging. But don’t tell Travis; he thinks it’s all natural.”
Austin scoffed. “That guy… he’s pretty high on our shit list.”
Tim frowned. “You boys might want to cut him some slack. All he’s doing is trying to help people. We wouldn’t be doing this right now if it weren’t for him. He also led you indirectly to Dead & Breakfast, helped you close about 50 open cases. Maybe that should earn him some consideration.”
Austin paused. “Maybe it should.”
They saw headlights and heard a car park and two doors shut quietly. A minute later their heads peeked over the horizon of the street. They slowly picked their way down the beach and onto the rocks.
“Hold…” Austin whispered. “Hold…”
They watched Travis and Lonegan make their way down the jetty.
Then Austin saw the gun. “Now!”
He scrambled up the big rock and reached for his gun, but his wet boots betrayed him and he dropped jaw first onto the top of the rock, dazed. Tim’s heart leapt, he peeked over the rock and saw The Editor draw a gun on his friend. Without thinking he threw himself on top of the rocks, ignored how the jagged corners cut into his shins and calves. In one motion he got to his feet, drew his .38 from its holster and got the drop on The Editor. He put his finger on the trigger…
Two lightning bolts flashed and thunder cracked and all Tim could do was watch his friend, his best friend, fall to the rocks.
The Editor, confident now, strode toward Travis Whitaker’s fallen body, kicked at his leg, then pointed the 9mm at his head.
“Drop it!” Tim shouted.
Lonegan turned, the gun still smoking in his hand, and raised the barrel.
The shots caught Lonegan square in the breastbone and sent him flying backwards. He was dead before he hit the rocks.
Tim stood, breath ragged, gun extended before him, shaking. A light rain began to fall. Or maybe it was just a mist kicked up off the jetty. A moment later he felt someone gently lower his arms.
“That,” Austin said, “is just how they teach it on the range.”
Tim DeMarco began to cry.
I sat, very gently, on the back of the ambulance. While the plan hadn’t worked to complete perfection (they were supposed to bag Lonegan before he shot me, but that’s why God invented bullet-proof vests), I was still alive and that was the important part. EMT’s say I probably have a couple cracked ribs, a bruised lung or two, but that I should be fine with some rest and aspirin. Still, they were taking me up to Cape Regional for a diagnostic once they checked out Officer Austin, who’d clubbed his jaw pretty good.
We’d known that Lonegan was The Editor since early that morning when I’d spoken to my police source, who let it “slip” that, even though The Editor had left pristine crime scenes, he’d forgotten to fish his rain gear from water when he’d offed Christian North and Justine Smith. The police did so for him and traced them to Dellas’ 5 & 10 on the Washington Street Mall. They found the cashier who sold them and zeroed in on Lonegan. Surveillance camera photos of the Scot in his Yankees cap sealed the deal.
Hubris. It was a killer.
While we acted out the charade at the Exit Zero Store, Cape May Police searched Lonegan’s house and computers. He was clever. The books, with all the press surrounding the murdered authors, were selling like mad. We’d never know how much cash went into his offshore account, but it was in the tens of thousands. As marketing schemes went, it wasn’t bad. Cops were sure they could tie Lonegan to all seven Editor murders, even if the main suspect’s heart now resembled a handful of ground beef.
It was my idea to lure Lonegan out here, trusting that Tim and Austin would plug him before he could put two in my back. That hiccup aside, it went pretty well.
It was getting a little harder to breathe.
“How you feeling?” Tim asked, eyes red. Had he been crying?
I shrugged. “Pretty good.”
“You’re a damn fool.”
Austin approached. “Nice work, Whitaker.”
“I just want you to know,” Austin looked from me to Tim and back, “I want you to know that we appreciate your help on this. Just, next time you get a hook onto something, let us know, okay? We’d hate for you to end up dead for no good reason.”
I nodded. It was a reasonable request. “Sure, no problem.”
“And when you take off the skirt and get out of the hospital, we should catch a ball game.”
I tried not to burst into tears. “Sure, sounds good.” He turned to leave. I called, “Hey officer…”
“Next time, try not to eat the jetty.”
Tim said, “Bam!”
Officer Austin rubbed his jaw, hooded his eyes, and stalked off. He may have been smiling.
“Nice,” Tim said.
I tried to answer but my chest was feeling even tighter.
“Travis?” It was Daryl. Her eyes were red, too. Do people really like me that much?
“Hey,” I replied hoarsely.
Her eyes said it all; frustration, anger, pride, a little lust, but mostly relief. I opened my mouth to try to say something witty, but suddenly found myself unable to breathe at all.
“Travis?” she said.
“Medic!” Tim cried.
I could exhale, but I couldn’t inhale well. For the second time that night stars filled my eyes.
I woke up the next morning in the hospital. My doctor explained that the swelling in my lungs caused my temporary asphyxiation. They stuck a tube down my throat and let a machine breathe for me for a few hours. This explained why it felt like someone used a steel wool pipe cleaner on my esophagus. But hey, that was twice in the last few hours I’d defied death – there were bound to be scars.
What I did not expect was seeing Sam Howard and David McComsey in my room when I came to. They wanted to express their gratitude and inform me that, with Lonegan gone, they would run Exit Zero until other arrangements were made.
“Congrats guys,” I rasped.
“We wondered if you’d like to write that Dead & Breakfast book,” McComsey said.
“I don’t know, guys. I’m not much of a writer.”
Sam smiled. “We’d be there to help you. Dave can work with the plot and characters, I’ll do the research, the histories of the families involved, stuff like that.”
I said, “Really?”
“Absolutely,” McComsey twisted his face into a grimace of a smile. “We’ll run a chapter a week, then release the whole thing in our Cape May Companion book.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Sam answered, “Dave’s going to front the creative end; I’m more of a manager of stories. The Companion is going to feature a little of each, some history, some short fiction, plus your thing. When Exit Zero dissolves once Lonegan is in the ground, we can fill the void.”
McComsey said, “And we’d like you on board.”
I considered it.
Sam said, “There would also be a small salary involved.
I considered it seriously.
“I promise you this,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
A few hours later I was given a clean bill of health and released. I dressed and fished for two items in my front pocket, then I was in my El Camino and gunning it for Cape May. 15 minutes later I was in the Grand Hotel. I fingered the two keys I’d been looking for. One belonged to Cathy Steltzer, my old high school flame. The other belonged to Daryl Vance, the hardened Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. I walked to the elevator and stepped inside. I pushed the button, the doors closed.
The elevator went up.