about chris mysteries thrillers stories events photos media contact
chris grabenstein
Rolling Thunder  Mind Scrambler  Hell Hole  Whack A Mole  Mad Mouse  Tilt A Whirl

Chapter One

Tilt A Whirl

Some guys have a code they live by, some guys don't.

John Ceepak? He has a code.

Me? No code. Not unless you count my ZIP code or something.

I took this job because I'm twenty-four and Sea Haven is, as you might've guessed, a sunny haven situated by the side of the sea—an eighteen-mile-long barrier island crammed with motels and beach houses and bait shacks and ice cream shops called stuff like "Do Me A Flavor" and the "Scoop Sloop."

Tourists come here to soak up the sun, lick down orange-and-white swirl cones, and bury each other neck-deep in hot sand. My hometown is best pictured on one of those perky placemat maps dotted with squiggly cartoons of buildings like The Shore Store, Santa's Sea Shanty, and King Putt Golf.

It's Saturday in Sea Haven.

I pull into the parking lot outside The Pancake Palace at 7:30 a.m. When I was in high school, I worked here as a busboy. Now I'm what they call a summer cop. I help out during the muggy months when the population of Sea Haven quadruples and then quintuples and then you need a plastic pass pinned to your swim trunks to even think about walking on the beach.

I swing the customized Ford Explorer into a parking spot near the newspaper dispensers at the side door. The Ford is white with tropical turquoise and hot pink lettering to let everybody know we're cops with a beachy kind of 'tude.

Inside, the restaurant isn't very crowded. Saturday is changeover day. People who rented last week are leaving, people renting this week will show up later, after the maid brigades have vacuumed the sandy floors and tossed out the abandoned seashell collections. This morning, I see mostly locals eating sensible stuff like eggs and toast, cereal and muffins. It's the tourists and day-trippers who go for the specials—chocolate chip French toast, Coco-Loco Pancakes and a little something I like to call The Heart Stopper: a waffle, with crispy bits of bacon baked right into the batter, topped with two scoops of butter and a fluffy igloo of whipped cream.

Like the tee-shirt says: "My diet's on vacation, too!"

Ceepak meets me here at The Pancake Palace every morning at 0730. He likes to use that Army clock lingo. We've met here every morning since he joined the force back in May.

John Ceepak doesn't like to drive.

Apparently, something happened while he was soldiering with the 101st Airborne over in Iraq that put him off driving for good. I'm not sure what because he's never told me about "the sandbox." Usually he just tells me where to turn left, where to park, stuff like that.

Sometimes, we talk Springsteen. Ceepak digs The Boss and knows all the lyrics to all his songs, even the ones nobody else listens to like that "Ghost of Tom Joad" song. Ceepak can quote "Tom Joad."

We hook up here in The Pancake Palace because it's close to Ceepak's apartment—a one-bedroom job situated over The Bagel Lagoon, a block up the street at 102 Ocean Avenue. Ceepak never orders bagels for breakfast. Guess he sees enough at home. He usually orders bran flakes and, if he's feeling frisky, some kind of fruit to plop on top. I'm not sure, but I think bran is part of The Code.

I've only known Ceepak a couple months, but I know one thing for sure: he's basically been a "good guy" all his life.

He just finished a thirteen-year stint with the Army, ending with Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was Military Police, the guys with the MP patches on their shoulders. That's where Ceepak met our boss, Chief Cosgrove. They served together in Germany seven or eight years back and that's how Ceepak swung this cushy "no-driving" deal. His old army buddy gave him a new job and a personal chauffeur. Me. I may be part-time but I know which side of the Ford the gas tank is on.

Before the Army, Ceepak told me he studied criminology. Before that, he was an Eagle Scout. Before that? I'm not sure, but I'll bet he was one helluva hall monitor in kindergarten. This is his first civilian cop job. He told the local newspaper "he loves being on the job in Sea Haven" because he can "help visiting children safely enjoy wholesome family fun."

Okay. Fine.

I like working here, too. Mostly because we get to wear cargo shorts and baseball caps and a polo shirt with the police patch sewn on the chest. Ceepak carries a gun; I don't, which is fine by me—as long as I get the baseball cap. Chicks dig the cop cap.

Don't get me wrong -- I want kids to have fun, too, but I'm more interested in the college kids who hang out on the boardwalk and the young babes I meet over oysters and brewskis down at The Sand Bar.

Ceepak is a cop 24/7. He spends his spare time reading about forensics and what he calls "interesting cases." I know he has cable TV because he's always telling me about these shows he watches where blood-splatter patterns and grass clippings and DNA solve crimes. Last weekend, some friends and me were heading down to The Sand Bar and I invited Ceepak to come along.

"Can't," he said.

Turns out, The FBI Files comes on the Discovery Channel Saturdays at 9 p.m.

"It's an episode called 'Shattered Shield,'" Ceepak said. "Sure it's a summer rerun, but I'd like to catch it again. I missed a few details the first time...."

I don't think I'll be asking Ceepak out for a bucket of beers again anytime soon.

Ceepak is sitting in a booth near the big glass windows up front in The Pancake Palace. He likes to feel the sun warm his face while he eats breakfast and that's where the sun likes to sit at 7:30.

He waves at me, like I don't know it's him or where he might be sitting. He sits at the same table every morning.

Ceepak is hard to miss. He's big -- about six-two. I figure he must be thirty or thirty-five, but he has this baby face and a big boyish grin. He even has dimples. When he's not on duty or watching the tube, he's down at the gym. I don't think he's taking yoga or Pilates classes. He's probably flinging hundred pound dumbbells up over his head -- pumping up his biceps and triceps and all those other "cep" muscles I don't even know if I have. The police shirt clings and bulges on his chest. It just sort of hangs on me.

Ceepak keeps his hair looking pretty military. It's razor tight around the ears but he let it go hog wild on top: it's at least an inch or two long up there with a cowlick flip in the front that adds to his whole Baby Huey look.

He doesn't wear the uniform shorts, prefers the cargo-pants. More pockets to carry stuff in. And he likes the official navy blue windbreaker: it has SEA HAVEN POLICE stenciled across the back in big yellow letters just like the FBI or the DEA or the cops on Cops.

"Morning, Danny," he says, as sunny as the booth he's sitting in. "How's it going this fine day?"


"Awesome. I ordered your coffee. Black, per usual."


I don't have much besides coffee at breakfast. I'm usually lugging around the chicken wings or mozzarella sticks or raw oysters I ate the night before.

Most of the booths and tables near us are filled with local shopkeepers fueling up for another day of selling trinkets and taffy. But there are a few tourist families scattered here and there -- the ones with hyper kids who'd never let mom and dad sleep in on a Saturday, changeover day or not. The ones who fling their forks at each other and topple sippy cups and steal their sister's crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu and help Princess Griddlecakes escape from Margarine Mountain.

At least that's who's sitting in the booth behind ours.

Behind Ceepak's head, I see two monsters bouncing up and down on the banquette, a boy and girl standing so they can pour syrup out of sticky bottles and soak their plates three feet below. I think they're playing airplane.

I anticipate a sugar-rush hurricane will hit the table in under five.

"Someone stole a tricycle this morning," Ceepak says.


He checks his notebook, I guzzle coffee. He's raring to go; my engine isn't even primed.

"From a residence over on Rosewood," he says. "Chrome colored three-wheeler. Valued at $350."

"Three hundred and fifty dollars? For a tricycle?"

"Roger that. It was stolen right off the folks' front porch. Call came in at 0630."

Did I mention—Ceepak has a police scanner in his apartment?

"We might want to swing by and see what we can see," Ceepak says, pulling a white-bellied strawberry off his bran mound.

Now, I'm sure the guys on duty at 6:30 a.m. have already swung by and taken everybody's statement. But Ceepak wants to go "see what he can see," which means he wants to hunt for footprints or dandelions that came from some lawn on the other side of town or skid marks and tire treads on the driveway. See what kind of forensic evidence we can dig up. See if it's enough to get our own show on the Discovery Channel.

"Sure," I say, getting in a second gulp of coffee, wishing I hadn't drunk all five of those beers last night. "We ought to swing by. Check it out."

"Have a good one!" The shopkeeper at the table across from us gets up to leave. He does one of those salute-waves in our direction and drops eight quarters on the table to cover his tip. He hikes up his khakis and strolls to the cash register where they have so many brochures you could spend your whole vacation reading about stuff you ought to be doing.

I'm not the only one who sees the loose change lying unprotected on the table.

One of the monsters sees it too. The boy, about eight or nine, in a surfer tank top soaked with syrup. The shark on front looks like it's bleeding purple because the kid went heavy on the blueberry during his recent bombing run.

His parents are reading the newspaper. Actually, they're hiding behind big sheets of newsprint, trying to forget that the hellions jumping up and down in the booth belong to them. Mom's behind "World Business," Dad's under "Sports." If the kids won't let them sleep in, they can at least tune the kids out for however long it takes to eat breakfast.

I make eye contact with the kid.

He sees my arm patch and baseball cap with the humongous word POLICE stitched across the front. Neither seems to faze him. Maybe he can't read.

He saunters over to the table and scoops up the quarters.

I focus on my coffee, stir it some, and pray Ceepak hasn't seen the little brat stealing a waitress's hard-earned tip.

But of course, he has.

Ceepak stands.

Like I said, he's six-two so the midget tough guy stuffing loose change into his pockets has to pay attention when suddenly a giant towers over him, hands on hips, smiling.

"What'ya doin' there, son?"

"Nothin'." The kid uses the oldest line in the book.

"Nothing?" Ceepak's smile gets broader. There go the dimples. "Looks to me like you were taking something that doesn't really belong to you..."

"Is there some problem?"

It's the mother. She flutters shut her newspaper and sighs, like Ceepak is ruining her day. I figure she's a lawyer or money manager or some kind of corporate ballbuster up in the city.

"No, ma'am. It's all good," Ceepak says. "Assuming, of course, your son puts it back."

"Puts what back?" Down come the baseball scores. Papa Bear is interested, too.

"Nothin'." The kid needs to work on his vocabulary. He only seems to know the one word and it sure isn't working with Ceepak.

"Is there some problem?" The mother is repeating herself, for dramatic effect or maybe to scare us.

Ceepak doesn't scare easy.

"I believe your son took some quarters that a customer left on the table as a tip...."

"Did not!"

The kid is stupid. While denying the theft, he pulls the quarters out of his shorts and tosses them back onto the table next to an empty glass.

"I just needed change," the kid says. "For the gumball machine."

Oh. He wasn't stealing, he was making change! Like the nice ladies in the cages down in Ocean Town do when they take your twenty and give you a cup of quarters for the slot machines.

"He needed quarters," the mother says. "That's all. Sit down, Trevor. Finish your breakfast."

Trevor sneers at Ceepak and returns triumphantly to his table.

"Let's see your dollar bills," Ceepak says.


The mother is mortified.

"Officer," she says, "we are on vacation." She's spreading out her words and not using contractions and that means she means business, buster.

"If this is how you people down here treat your visitors..."

"Let's see the greenbacks and it's all good."

The kid has a look on his face: busted!

He doesn't have two dollar bills in his pocket. He doesn't have diddly except lint or a wad of snotty Kleenex.

"That's it," the father says. "What's your badge number? I'm going to have a word with your supervisor...."

Ceepak smiles.

"I will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate those who do," he says.

"What?" The father is confused.

So's the mom—she's scrunching up her nose and forehead, exhaling loudly, doing an excellent job looking "flabbergasted."

Me? I've heard it a hundred times. It's The Code. The Honor Code from West Point or something.

"If your son shows me the dollar bills he was attempting to change, albeit in a rather unorthodox fashion, I will apologize immediately. In fact, I will turn in my badge and leave town in disgrace..."

Ceepak is laying it on thick. Yanking their cranks. I love it when he busts some ballbuster's balls.

The kid starts to sweat.

"Show him your money, Trevor," the father says.

The kid sweats some more.

I'm sweating too, but mine is because Ceepak insists on sitting here in the booth near the untinted windows. I squint through the glare to see if there is some merciful cloud about to scoot across the sky and save me.

That's when I see her.

A blonde girl. About twelve. Maybe thirteen.

She's stumbling up Ocean Avenue toward The Pancake Palace.

When she gets closer, I see her dress is covered with blood.

So's her face.

The girl is screaming.

© Chris Grabenstein, 2005