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chris grabenstein
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Chapter One

Mad Mouse

August 30th is National Toasted Marshmallow Day so, naturally, we're celebrating.

Sure there's some debate: Is National Toasted Marshmallow Day August 14th or August 30th? We go with the 30th because it's closer to Labor Day. Besides, if you dig a little deeper, you'll discover August 14th is also National Creamsicle Day, and we firmly believe Creamsicles deserve their own, separate day of national recognition.

Five of my long-time buds and I are driving out to Tangerine Beach. Here in Sea Haven, New Jersey, the beaches get named after the streets they're closest to. On the way, we pass Buccaneer Bob's Bagels, Sea Shanty Shoes, and Moby Moo's Ice Cream Cove. In case you can't tell by the waterlogged names, this is your basic down-the-shore resort town: we live for July and August because our visitors go home in September and take their wallets with them.

I'm a part-time summer cop with the Sea Haven Police. That means I wear a navy-blue cop cap and help elderly pedestrians navigate the crosswalks. This year I might go full-time when summer's over, which is, basically, next week. They usually offer one part-timer a job at the end of the season. The chief gets to pick. We have a new one. We'll see. Anyhow, I put in my application.

Riding up front with me, twiddling her sparkly toes on the dashboard, is Katie Landry. She's a friend who I hope will soon become a "friend." Like the Molson billboard says: "Friends come over for dinner. Friends stay for breakfast." So far, Katie and me? We're just doing takeout. Mostly Burger King or Quiznos.

In the second row are Jess Garrett and Olivia Chibbs—a sleepy-eyed surfer dude and an African-American beauty queen slash brainiac. Jess and Olivia are already buttering toast and squeezing orange juice together. She comes home from college every summer to make money to cover the stuff her med-school scholarships don't. Jess lives here full time. He paints houses when he's not busy goofing off.

Then there's Becca Adkinson and Harley Mook. Becca's folks run the Mussel Beach Motel, she helps. Mook (we all call him Mook) is short and tubby and loud. He's in the way-back, popping open a bag of Cheetos like it's a balloon. He's just in town for a week or two, which is fine. You can only take so much Mook. He's in grad school, working on his MBA.

According to Jess, that means "Me Big Asshole."

"Hey, Danny?" Mook hollers. "What's the biggest crime down here these days? Taffy-snatching? Over-inflated volleyballs?"

Mook's not funny but he's right: people typically come to our eighteen-mile strip of sand for old-fashioned fun in the sun. It's not the South Bronx. It's not even Newark. But, Sea Haven is where I saw my first bullet-riddled body sprawled out on a Tilt-A-Whirl over at Sunnyside Playland. I remember that morning. It wasn't much fun.

"Traffic!" Becca says. "That's the worst!"

I'm driving because my current vehicle is a minivan with plenty of room for beer and gear. I bought the van "pre-owned," my mother being the previous owner. She sold it to me when she and my dad moved out to Arizona. It's a dry heat.

I'd say half the vehicles in front of me are also minivans, all loaded down with beach stuff. Bike racks off the backs, cargo carriers up top. You can't see inside anybody's rear windows because the folding chairs and inflatable hippopotami are stacked too high. I have plenty of time to make these observations because our main drag, Ocean Avenue, is currently a four-lane parking lot.

"Take Kipper!" This from Mook. Now he's chugging out of a two-liter bottle of grape soda.

"Hello? He can't," says Becca. She points to the big No Left Turn sign.

"Chill, okay?" Katie teaches kindergarten so she knows how to talk to guys like Mook.

"For the love of God, man, take Kipper!" Now Mook's kneeling on the floor, begging me to hang a Louie. For the first time all day, he's actually kind of funny so I go ahead and make the illegal left.

Oh—the streets in this part of town? They're named after fish. In alphabetical order. Only they couldn't find a fish that starts with a Q so Red Snapper comes right after Prawn.

As soon as I make the turn, a cop steps into the street and raises his palm.

And, of course, it's my partner. John Ceepak. He signals for me to pull over.

There's another cop with him. Buzz Baines. Our brand new chief of police. Some people thought Ceepak should've taken the top job after what happened here in July. Ceepak wasn't one of them.

I'm not sure if Buzz is Baines's real name or if it's just what everybody calls him because he's really an Arnold or a Clarence or something. Anyhow, Buzz is the guy I hope will give me a full-time job next Tuesday. Today he's going to give me a ticket.

"Danny?" Ceepak is startled to see me behaving in such a criminal fashion.


Ceepak is a cop 24-7. He's 6'2" and a former MP. He still does jumping-jacks and push-ups—what he calls PT—every morning, like he's still in the Army. He also has this code he lives by: "I will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate those who do." An illegal left turn? That's cheating. No question, I'm busted.

"Hey, Ceepak!" Becca sticks her head over my shoulder. She loves his muscles. Maybe this is why Becca and I don't date anymore: where Ceepak's beefcake, I'm kind of angel food.

"Who we got here, John?" Baines hasn't recognized me yet.

"Auxiliary Officer Boyle."

I hear Becca sigh. Ceepak? He's handsome. Buzz Baines? He's handsomer, if that's a word. Sort of like a TV anchorman. You know what I mean, chiseled features with a lantern jaw and this little mustache over a toothpaste-commercial smile.

"Of course. Boyle. You and John cracked the Tilt-A-Whirl case."

"Roger that," says Ceepak. "Officer Boyle played a vital role in that investigation."

"Keep up the good work." Chief Baines winks at me. "And don't break any more laws."

"Yes, sir."

"Call me Buzz."

"Yes, sir. Buzz."

I hear Ceepak rip a citation sheet off his pad. It's all filled in.

"You're writing him up?" Baines asks.

"Yes, sir. The law is the law. It should be applied fairly, without fear or favoritism."

Baines nods.

"John, when you're right, you're right. Sorry, Danny. If you need help with the fifty bucks, come see me. We'll work out a payment schedule."

"Drive safely," says Ceepak.

"Right. See you tomorrow."

"No. Thursday's my day off."

"Oh, yeah. Mine, too."

Ceepak eyes our beer coolers. Marshmallows aren't the only things that get toasted at our annual beach party.

"Then have a cold one for me, partner.

"Roger that."

"But pace yourself. It takes a full hour for the effect of each beer to dissipate."

"Right. See you Friday."

"That'll work." Ceepak smiles. No hard feelings. He even snaps me a crisp "catch-you-later" salute.

I pull away from the curb, real, real slow. I can't see any signs but I assume 10 m.p.h. is below the posted speed limit.

I can't afford two fifty-dollar tickets in one day.

* * *

The late-night guy on the radio is saluting "The Summer of '96," reminding us what idiots we were back then.

"Tickle Me Elmo was under every Christmas tree and Boyz II Men were climbing the charts with Mariah Carey..."


He's going to make us listen to her warble like a bird that just sucked helium.

It's almost midnight. We're the only ones on the beach. Most of the houses beyond the dunes are dark because they're rented to families with kids who wake up at 6 a.m., watch a couple cartoons, and are ready for their water wings and boogie boards around 6:15. The parents need to go to bed early. They probably also need vodka.

I like the beach at night. The black sky blends in with the black ocean and the only way to tell the two apart is to remember that the one on top has the stars and the one below has the white lines of foam that look like soap suds leaking out from underneath a laundry room door.

Katie's sitting with the other girls around our tiny campfire, smooshing marshmallows and gooey Hershey bars between graham crackers. I bet she's the kind of kindergarten teacher who'd let you have S'mores in class on your birthday. She's that sweet even though she grew up faster than any of us. Her parents died eight or nine years ago. Car wreck.

I need another beer.

I slog up the sand to the cooler. Mook and Jess are hanging there, probably talking baseball, about the only thing they still have in common. Mook wears this floppy old-man bucket hat he thinks makes him look cool. He has one hand jammed in the pocket of his shorts, the other wrapped around a long neck bottle of Bud, his thumb acting like a bottle cap. The world is his frat house.

"Hey, Danny...." Mook shakes the Bud bottle. "Think fast."

He lifts his thumb and sprays me with beer. Now it looks like I just pissed my pants.

Mook's belly jiggles like a Jell-O shot, he's laughing so hard.

"Jesus, Mook." Jess says it for me.

I forgot about Mook's classic spray-you-in-the-crotch gag. One of his favorites. He also used to buy plastic dog poop at the Joke Joint on the boardwalk and stuff it in your hamburger bun when you weren't looking.

"Very mature, Mook." I wipe off my shorts.

"You're not going to arrest me, are you, Detective Danny?"

"No. I'll let you off with a warning. This time."

"You want a beer, Danny?" Jess fishes a longneck out of the watery ice.

I check my watch.

"What's with the watch?" Mook saw me. "You're actually waiting an hour between brewskis? What a weenie! Your cop pal is a hardass. And that haircut! Who does he think he is? G.I. Joe?"

If Mook knew Ceepak like I do he'd realize: GI Joe probably plays with a Ceepak Action Figure. The guy's that good. I shake my head, ignore Mook, and mosey away with my beer.

Becca, Olivia and Katie are sitting in short beach chairs, the kind that put your butt about two inches above the sand. I plop down with them.

"Someone please remind me why we hang out with Mook," I say.

Becca shrugs. "Because we always have?"

I guess that nails it.

On the radio, the deejay's yammering about "Sea Haven's gigantic Labor Day Beach Party and Boogaloo BBQ. MTV will be broadcasting live. So will we..."

They've been hyping this Labor Day deal all month. Come Monday, the beach will be so crowded, you'll be lucky to find enough sand to spread out a hand towel, maybe a washcloth.

"Here's another hot hit from the sizzling summer of '96!"

The radio throbs with "C'mon 'N Ride It (The Train)"—a bass-thumping dance tune from the Quad City DJ's, the same people who gave the world "Whoot, There It Is." The choo-choo song was big in 1996, the summer The Marshmallow Crew first got together and somebody said, "You know what? We should do this again next summer!"

"Hey, let's dance!" Katie pops up, like she's ready to teach us all the hokey-pokey—the adults-only version.

The girls fling off flip-flops, kick up sand. Becca cranks up the volume on the radio, shimmies her blonde hair like she's in a shampoo commercial. I attempt to get my groove thing going. Basically, when I dance, I stand still and sway my hips back and forth. Tonight, I also "move my arm up and down" as the singer suggests. Lyrics like that are extremely helpful for those of us who are dance-impaired.

"Hey, isn't dancing on the beach against the law?" Mook brays like an annoying ass. Actually, the herky-jerky moves he is currently making should be ruled illegal. "You gonna haul us off to jail, Danny? Get your picture in the paper again?"

Ceepak and I got some press back in July. The wire services and magazines picked up the Tilt-A-Whirl story. I was semi-famous for about a week. On top of being obnoxious, Mook sounds jealous.

Fortunately, any thoughts of Harley Mook drift away when Katie sashays over to dance with me instead of the whole group.

She opens up her arms, swings her hips, invites me to move closer.

Then I hear these pops.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Like someone stomping on Dixie cups up on the street.

I'm hit.

My chest explodes in a big splotch of fluorescent yellow.

Katie's hands drop down and fly behind her. She must be hit too.


A paintball hits the radio and sends it backwards. The batteries tumble out. The music dies.

Pop! Snap! Pop!

We're all hit—splattered with this eerie yellow-green paint that shines like a cracked glow stick. My sternum stings where the paintball whacked me.

"Danny?" It's Becca. She sounds hurt. "Danny?"

She sinks to her knees and brings a hand up to cover her eye.

It's fluorescent yellow and red.

The paint is mixing with her blood.

© Chris Grabenstein, 2006