Fear and Loathing at Cape Fear

Jon Jefferson Survives the Cape Fear Crime Festival (barely)

The dame looked like a heartache waiting to happen, but that was no surprise, the gig being what it was. Cape Fear. You gotta hand it to folks willing to lay their cards face-up from the get-go. No “Turning Leaf Book Fair” horsepuckey for this Carolina crowd. Nope. You sign on for the Cape Fear Crime Festival, you’ve had fair warning of the trouble ahead.

The long-stemmed trouble that found me at the Wilmington airport—Janet, her name was—gave me the once over, then pointed to her car, a German tank with dark windows. “Get in,” she said, her voice hard as the blued steel of a .38. I kept my trap shut and got in.

Janet dumped me at the hotel, with instructions to get cleaned up and then hotfoot it over to the bar next door. “Phyllis will be there,” she said, then paused. “And Dorothy.”

Phyllis and Dorothy. Jesus. I crossed myself—it seemed classier than wetting my pants—and wondered if I was in over my head. Phyllis and Dorothy were the broads running the whole show, the masterminds of the Cape Fear Crime Festival—a seven-year caper that made Al Capone’s Chicago look like Disney World. If I had a C-note for all the corpses and cops and hard-luck stories and easy women that had drifted through Cape Fear, I wouldn’t be peddling my soul for chump change.

But I was here to do a job, so I did it, even if my hands shook during the doing. I brought corpses to Cape Fear. Pictures of stiffs from the Body Farm, a little place started by my buddy, William “Billy Bones” Bass. Google him if you ain’t heard of him…and if you think you’ve got the stomach for it. Only place I know with a badder-ass name than Cape Fear is the Body Farm—and the name’s the nicest thing about it. Pretty Boy Floyd? Nobody would’ve called him pretty if Bass had given him the Body Farm treatment.

But the folks who’ll show up for a gig called the Cape Fear Crime Festival aren’t the kind that scare easy. Bloodthirsty as Red Cross phlebotomists, this pack of writers and readers took everything I could dish out Thursday night, and they came back Friday salivating for more. They got it: a banquet of murder and edgy sex and sadistic similes and cop work and bomb squads. Friday night they listened and laughed—laughed out loud, for crissakes—as William “Bad Bill” Bernhardt sang a jolly little ditty telling how he’d iced some poor schmuck, just because the guy had sassed him. Bernhardt sang like a camary, grinning and tickling the ivories, too. He made Bugsy Siegel look like a no-talent Mother Theresa.

That was enough for me; I got out while I still could. But the word on the street is, Saturday was just as intense as Friday. Bullets flew, bodies fell, and clichés dropped like flies all day long. To top it off, that night “Heartless John” Hart opened up a blue-blood literary vein and spritzed everybody with Southern noir ice water. Gives me shivers just to hear about it.

I used to think I was tough. But Cape Fear taught me better. Cape Fear taught me a lesson I ain’t never gonna forget.

Jon Jefferson is half of “Jefferson Bass,” the writing duo behind the New York Times bestsellers Carved in Bone and Flesh and Bone. The third novel in the Body Farm series, The Devil’s Bones, will be published in February 2008.