A chilling and compelling new short story by Terry O’Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
Chapter 8: Suffer A Jetty
The Editor, as he had been branded by local authorities, clicked the “Share” button on his web browser, closed it and smiled a satisfied smile. They were so stupid; the investigator, his partner and the journalist who thought they could outsmart him. Him! The one who had managed to kill seven people leaving neither footprint nor follicle behind. He admired their audacity of hope, but thrilled with the knowledge that they too would soon fall beneath his proverbial boot, though in actuality he preferred a knife, bat, or wood chipper.
Now he was off on his morning routine of gym, breakfast and Wawa for coffee and donuts before going into work, where nobody knew, nobody suspected. They thought he was just a guy, a guy doing a job well, going about his daily life; eating in their restaurants, drinking in their bars, cashing their checks. He had so far resisted the temptation of megalomania that had felled so many like him. There would be no letters to the papers explaining the demons in his head. He had no demons – only a mission. There would be no cryptic phone calls to the police hotlines. Unlike the Bundys and Mansons of the world, he had no desire for fame and notoriety. He just wanted to get his and go away. He would take as long as it took, claim as many as needed to be claimed, any means to his end.
This next chapter would likely be the last, the dénouement to his magnum opus. But first, he needed to sweat. So he grabbed his bag, powered down his laptop, and set off to North Beach Gym where, he hoped, the gay restaurant owner might proposition him again. Today he might get a surprising reply to his joking come-ons. Or a knife in the throat.
He made a mental note to stop by Dellas’ for more rain gear. His last set had been swept to sea and he had business tonight.
I woke up in my computer chair with a pounding headache. I had always thought the chair pretty comfortable, but not anymore. The headache, I’m sure, came from my awful posture, the wine, the thick, garlicky pizza, and the stress.
The stress existed on several levels. Not only was I about to put myself in the path of a maniac – again – but I was also dealing with unforeseeable complications in my romantic life. Two days ago I had none to speak of, and given how I felt currently, I could have happily gone on that way. As it was, I was now juggling two girls. My old high school flame, Cathy Steltzer, had showed up after seeing me on the news last summer in the wake of Dead & Breakfast. Cathy was the same soft, beautiful girl she had been 15 years ago when we’d had our often-contemplated, never-consummated dalliances. Then there was Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Daryl Vance, Cathy’s physical opposite; all hard lines and angles where Cathy was roundly feminine.
Amazingly, both women had thrown themselves at me last night. Amazingly, I rejected both of them. Am I not a playa?
I shouldn’t bitch, though. One of the reasons I became a PI was the romantic notion that ladies loved PI’s – for a year this proved patently false, but for 12 hours had proved patently complicating.
I yawned, rubbed my eyes and looked up at my cheap Office Depot clock; 7:03am. I then promised myself that, if and when I ever got some more money together, I would get a cool Jiminy Cricket or Pinocchio clock, something Elvis Cole would hang in his office. Robert Crais’ novels were another reason I wanted to become a PI. Elvis Cole was cool. If I did what he did, wouldn’t I be cool, too?
Anyway, now both Cathy and Daryl were gone, Cathy in an angry skid of gravel, Daryl in embarrassed silence.
From the buzz saw noises emanating from his office, it appeared that Tim Demarco, my partner, had also spent the night. It occurred to me that if I could ever get anybody to rent the apartments in the building I owned out front, I could stick a trundle bed in the records room and effectively live out of my office. Would sure help with the mortgage.
Oh yeah, impending financial ruin also added to my headache – the upper left part of it, specifically. Just another wonderful morning here at Whitaker & DeMarco Investigations.
I shuffled past the Japanese curtains behind my desk to the little sink that was half of a kitchenette. I could totally live back here! I swigged a glass of water and set-up the coffee machine with my favorite; Wawa Raspberry Mocha. Tim was always busting my chops about the girly coffees I drank and, well, he was right to. What self-respecting, hard-boiled PI drank coffee that smelled like Ladies Room potpourri?
“Morning,” he croaked. He looked as well-rested as I; not very.
He yawned, “That’s not coffee, that’s what my mother uses to–”
“I get it.”
Tim poured himself a glass of OJ from the little fridge. I asked him, “What the hell was going on with you last night, Mr. Sexy Eyes-Fancy Pants?”
He smiled. “I was just having fun with you. I know you don’t get a lot of female attention like I do…”
“… and now you got two at once… How could I resist?”
“You knew Daryl liked me?”
Tim shrugged. “The way she tore into you at that press conference, I knew she at least thought you were cute,” – he pinched my cheek – “which you are.”
“And Cathy… forget about it. Second she walked into the Exit Zero Store she was undressing you with her eyes. Girl’s in heat.”
He was teasing me for playing Casanova so poorly, but it did make me feel pretty good to have two such different, beautiful women digging me. I don’t get a lot of that.
“Look at you,” Tim said airily. “All flush with new love.”
“New doesn’t cover it.”
Tim chuckled. “Check the computer yet?”
Criminy! I’d almost forgot. “Come with me.”
Back at my desk I opened Internet Explorer and went to my bookmarks. My inside police source, the one I hadn’t soured yet, told me he believed The Editor first contacted his victims via the Internet; personal blogs and social networking sites. So that morning, Tim, Daryl, Exit Zero publisher Donal Lonegan and I opened one of each under my name.
My Exit Zero blog, where I’d written a few paragraphs teasing my Dead & Breakfast book, had been viewed by a grand total of… three people. There were no entries in the reader comment section. Strike 1.
Next we checked my MySpace account. I’m told MySpace is a dying breed, aced out by edgier and hipper sites. Still, we figured it worth a shot. I logged in and read several emails asking me to join Vampire Clans and Mafia Families, along with some spam mails inviting me to view scantily clad teens “from your area!” Strike 2.
Last, we logged into my Facebook. Apparently, Facebook is where it’s at. We thought about a Twitter account but, as a man, I refuse to Tweet. I had uploaded a decent photo from the Exit Zero archives and filled out all the requisite information; birthday, hometown, political leanings, etc., and copied the same paragraphs from my Exit Zero blog. The book didn’t actually exist, but that was neither here nor there.
A couple of red flags informed me of waiting email and friend requests. There were many. Most of the friends I knew tangentially from around town, acquaintances, really, as I didn’t have many friends. Several I didn’t know but had mutual friends with. No killers yet.
Tim said, “You really should have done this Facebook thing earlier, like I told you. People are always looking for lost kids or bikes or cats and dogs.”
“Well I’m doing it now, aren’t I?” I answered defensively.
“Yeah, three years after everyone else in the world.”
“Call me old-fashioned.”
I clicked on my messages and scanned the first 12 emails; they were of the “Welcome to Facebook” and, picking up on Tim’s frequency, “so nice to see you’ve joined the 21st century” variety. The last one, however, may as well have been titled “BINGO!”
“Your Book,” was the topic. “I have some information you may like to acquire,” read the body.
It went on, “Please reply ASAP to set up a meeting.”
“Got him,” Tim said excitedly. Was he drinking my girly coffee?
I agreed, “Let’s get moving. You go clean up, I’ll work on this.”
“Yes sir, sir,” Tim said and saluted me. Ball breaker.
He took off; I clicked on the sender’s profile which identified him only as “Book Fan”. Not surprisingly, it was almost completely blank: no info, no photo, nothing beyond the name. I clicked “Add As Friend”, added “My Book” to the email header, clicked “Send” and waited. In the bottom right corner was a box that let you know which of your friends was currently online and available to chat. I opened it and got up for a cup of coffee. I took a sip, burnt my lip, and sat back down at the desk. Now it was a waiting game.
Book Fan appeared online. I clicked on his name and a little chat box opened.
“Hello,” I wrote.
“Hello,” came the reply.
“Got ur email. Wattup?” The detective as shorthand chat artist.
“I’ve got info may be useful for ur book, which I can’t wait to read.”
“What kind of info?”
“Not over net. Sensitive. Meet?”
Hook. “Sure. When?”
“Work 4-12. 12:15?”
Line. “AM/ PM?”
Sinker. “Sure. Where?”
“Where they found writer last wk, cove jetty? Want pics for own book. Too creepy?”
Landed. “Lol… no. Meet you there.”
“Very sensitive info. Ur eyes only.”
“Not sure. Would like to bring editor. New to this.”
There was a long pause.
“Hello?” I typed.
“Take ur time.”
I waited another minute before Book Fan wrote back, “OK. Bring editor. But no notes, no cameras. Deal?”
“Sorry so fussy,” Book Fan wrote.
“Long as ur not some crazy person. Lol.”
“Lol… no. Just enjoy my privacy. Lol. : )”
“Understood. How will I recognize?”
“Raincoat and hat.”
“Lol… calling for rain?”
“Cape May you never know. C U then.”
“K thx bye.”
I logged out, trembling. Tim emerged from the shower.
“Thanks. And, uh, would you mind wearing that towel around you waist?”
Tim did so, for which I was grateful. Then I picked up the phone and called my police source. It was only fair to keep him in the loop after all the risks he’d taken. When he answered I filled him in, then he gave me some pretty sensitive information himself. I took notes, thanked him, and hung up. It was now 8am. We had 16 hours to get this right. It was our only chance.
At 11:30 that morning we gathered at the Exit Zero Store & Global HQ, a hybrid merchandise store/office from whence Exit Zero magazine sprang each week. We sat upstairs and ran through the plan. Exit Zero authors Sam Howard and David McComsey would stay here with Tim under safekeeping. I guessed that The Editor may be setting us up for a distraction. I’m a PI. I think like that sometimes.
Daryl Vance would stay with them. She’d called her Inquirer editor and explained she was working on a blockbuster. He encouraged her to do so. Lonegan and I would meet the whacko at the cove.
I was bringing Lonegan for two reasons. First, if the Book Fan indeed turned out to be selling information regarding Dead & Breakfast (I found this dubious since I had worked the case and knew everything there was to know about the cannibalistic rituals that took place beneath Cape May) I would need Lonegan there to negotiate the process of acquiring it or debunking it.
The second reason was more practical; he might recognize the psycho as the psycho before he could do any psycho things. Seemed reasonable, he agreed.
“Okay,” I said. “Donal and I should be back within the hour. If not, send in the Marines.”
Everyone chuckled at my false bravado, but I had to convince them, and myself, that I wasn’t scared half-to-death, which I was.
“Good luck,” Sam Howard said and shook my hand. “I appreciate this to no end.”
I shook back. “Buy me a beer at the Mug later.”
He frowned. “I don’t drink.”
McComsey came up, looking dour, which was as close as he got to looking grateful. “What Sam said, me too. I’ll but you two beers.”
Sam and David drifted off with Lonegan. Daryl approached.
“Hey you,” I said.
She smiled wanly.
“Listen,” I said. “I have to ask; why didn’t you give McComsey’s book a chance? Guy’s pretty beat up his book’s not selling while you slobber all over Howard’s doorstop.”
She regarded me calmly. “Believe me; I did give it a fair shake. My review didn’t run because my editor found it too hurtful. I was just trying to be even-handed. It’s not a very good book. Trust me.”
She smiled, “You read the review; best book of its kind ever written. But I think it’s cute how you pull for the underdog.”
“So does my bookie.”
“If it means anything, I think McComsey has more talent as a writer, he just needs to hone it. Then he’ll write a truly great book. Howard’s an excellent researcher, but he’s not exactly Hemingway at turning a phrase. And calling a book about Cape May the best of its kind is the definition of damning with faint praise. It might be the only book of its kind.”
Sam Howard was standing next to her. He walked away blankly. Daryl grimaced.
“Well,” I said, “now he knows.”
She grabbed my shirt. “Don’t do anything crazy. If it looks bad, get away. I’d like you to come back in one piece, even if it’s not to me.”
She smiled warmly but there was hurt in it.
I said. “I told you last night, you’re awesome. It’s just this other thing. I need to give it a chance, see if it’s real. It’s been fifteen years. I owe Cathy that much.”
She lowered her eyes, kissed my cheek.
“Just in case,” she pressed a key into my hand, “I’m at the Grand.”
Why, Lord? Why today?
“Okay,” I said and pocketed the key.
Tim chucked my shoulder. “You ready, boss man?”
“Remember,” Tim said, “Stick to the plan.”
I nodded again. “Lonegan. Go time.”
We shook hands all around, then the two of us made our way into the night. We weren’t sure what awaited us; odds are it would be just a lonely guy looking for a conversation. Odds were also that it was a psychotic killer waiting to pump some bullets into my face. Odds were also that it would be a big nothing.
But odds and me… we never got along.