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The dogs on Main Street howl
'cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land

—Bruce Springsteen, "The Promised Land"

Copyright, Bruce Springsteen

WHACK A MOLE
Chapter One

Whack a Mole I've never been what you might call an overachiever, but at age twenty-five I've already done the worst thing any human being can possibly do.

John Ceepak, my partner, tells me I should let it all out. Get it off my chest. Make what the priests used to call a full and complete confession.

Fine.

I'll do like Ceepak suggests.

It all starts with this stupid ring he found.
Chapter Two

Last Sunday. Six fifty-five A.M.

Bruce Springsteen is on the radio reciting my most recent resume: "I had a job, I had a girl, I had something going, mister, in this world...."

I'm sitting in The Bagel Lagoon waiting for Ceepak. He lives here. Not in the restaurant with the bagels—upstairs in the apartment on the second floor.

"She said Joe, I gotta go, we had it once, we ain't got it any more. She packed her bags, left me behind...."

The Boss is laying it on thicker than a slab of walnut cream cheese. Says he feels like he's "a rider on a down-bound train."

I can relate.

Katie's gone.

She said, "Danny, I gotta go." Okay, it doesn't rhyme as good as it might've if my name was Joe like the guy in Bruce's song. Katie, my ex-girlfriend, moved to California. Grad school. Left town in March.

I hope California is as nice as Sea Haven—this eighteen-mile-long strip of sand-in-your-shoes paradise down the Jersey Shore. I hope it has boardwalks and miniature golf and fresh-cut fries and a fudge forecast that's always smooth and creamy like it has been at Pudgy's Fudgery for the past seventy-five years, at least according to the sign flapping out on their sidewalk near the Quick Pick Fudge Cart.

On the radio, Bruce is done singing the blues.

Me, too.

* * *

At exactly seven A.M. every Sunday, the Reverend Billy Trumble shoves all rock 'n' roll off the air. He's been doing seven A.M. Sundays on WAVY for nearly thirty years.

"Friends, do you think it is early?" his smooth voice purrs. "Trust me—it is later than you think. Judgment Day is nigh...."

"Turn it off," hollers Joe Coglianese from the back of the shop. He and his brother Jim run The Bagel Lagoon. Joe's in charge of stirring the pot where the bagels bob in boiling water. Jim mans the counter. It's the middle of July and already 80 degrees outside. It feels hotter if you factor in the humidity, plus the steam rising up from that humongous bagel vat. No wonder Joe is the grouchier of the two Coglianese brothers.

Jim snaps off the radio.

I tear another bite out of my bagel.

Ceepak should be joining me any minute. We're both cops with the Sea Haven P.D. and, even though it's our day off, today we are men on a mission.

Ceepak, who's like this 6'2", thirty-six-year-old Eagle-Scout-slash-Jarhead, found something he thinks is valuable buried on the beach while he was sweeping the sand with his metal detector.

This is what Ceepak does for fun when there are no Forensic Files or CSI reruns on TV. He's even in this club: The Sea Haven Treasure Hunter Society. It's mostly geeks and geezers, guys who strap on headphones and walk the beach like the minesweeper soldier in every bag of green plastic Army men—who, come to think of it, are now chocolate-chip-camo-brown because they've been to Iraq and back, just like Ceepak. They hunt for Spanish doubloons, abandoned Rolexes, rusty subway tokens, discarded paper clips—anything that makes their detectors go beepity-beep.

Anyway, a week ago, Ceepak dug up a ring from P. J. Johnson High School up in Edison. Class of 1983. Inside the ring he found an inscription: B. Kladko. Ceepak being Ceepak, he investigated further and came up with a Brian Kladko who, indeed, graduated from PJJHS in 1983 and still lives somewhere nearby. We're going up there today to take his class ring back to him.

After Katie split, I fill my weekends as best I can.

While I wait, I check out the early-morning crowd. It's mostly tourists from New York and Philadelphia, making them experts on both bagels and cream cheese. They swarm into The Lagoon ordering their favorite combos, forgetting they came down here to try new stuff, like Jersey blueberries or Taylor Pork Roll.

The door opens and all of a sudden it's like somebody walked in with a load of last week's lox in their shorts. A lot of noses suddenly crinkle, mine included. Phew.

"Something's fishy around here," says the big guy who's just come in. "Look no further. It's me!"

"Me," being Cap'n Pete Mullen. He runs one of the deep-sea fishing boats over by the public marina, and he's been taking tourists out after tuna and fluke for so long his clothes all smell like they've been washed with Low Tide-Scented Tide.

"Whataya need, Pete?" asks Jim, the bagel brother behind the counter.

"Baker's dozen. Got a charter going out this morning."

Cap'n Pete has a walrus mustache that wiggles like a worm on a hook. He grins at a kid who's staring at him, watching the lip hair twitch. "I'm Cap'n Pete, laddie. But you can call me Stinky. Stinky Pete."

The boy laughs. So do his folks.

"You run a fishing boat?" asks the dad.

"Sure do."

Pete is good. He comes in to buy breakfast and ends up hooking and booking more clients. I'm sure before their week in Sea Haven is over this fine family of four will be strapping on life vests and heading out to sea on the Reel Fun—Cap'n Pete's forty-seven-foot Sportfish.

Jim scoops up an assortment of bagels from the bins and hands the bag to Cap'n Pete.

"Well, I best be shoving off." He chops a salute off the brim of his admiral's cap to the little kid. He sort of looks like the Skipper from Gilligan's Island.

Now he shoots me a wave.

Grins.

"Hey, Danny—have Johnny give me a holler. I missed the last meeting."

I'm in mid-chew so I nod and wave. To hear Ceepak tell it, Pete is the unluckiest of all his treasure-hunting buddies. The guy's never found anything under the sand, although occasionally he manages to reel in an interesting boot or tire on his fishing lines.

I chomp off another bite of bagel and eyeball the couple that just stormed in. Studying people is a habit I've picked up working with Ceepak. He's always sizing folks up, trying to decipher their real story, the one they're trying to hide.

The fiftysomething guy is wearing what I call preppy nautical: untucked polo shirt, khaki slacks, Docksiders without socks.

His slightly younger wife has on a wide-brimmed straw hat anchored with a scarf strapped tight under her chin. Her coffee can-size sunglasses make her look like she has gigantic ant eyes. I figure she's trying to hide from the world. She also seems to be having trouble with the menu. Keeps staring up at the chalkboard, where things aren't all that complicated. The Bagel Lagoon? Basically, it's about bagels.

"Honey?" The husband is hoping to nudge his wife toward a decision.

"Do you have toast?" she asks.

"No," says Jim. "Bagels."

"Eggs?"

"She'll have a raisin bagel," says the husband.

"I don't like raisins."

"Fine. Make it a plain."

"I don't like plain, either."

"Well what do you like?"

Obviously, these folks came down the shore to put a little sizzle back in their marriage. I'm glad things are working out so well for them.

"If you paid more attention, you'd know what I like!" The wife steps closer to the counter, farther away from her husband.

"I'll have a poppy," she finally says.

"Anything on it?" asks Jim.

Her eyes go back to the menu board. There are six different kinds of cream cheese and four kinds of butter, if you include peanut. This could go on for hours.

I turn and stare out the window.

Well, well, well.

Here comes Rita. Down the side-of-the-building staircase from Ceepak's apartment.

Over the past year, my partner has struck up a romance with a lovely local lady named Rita Lapczynski. She's a single mom, about thirty-five, who has this huge swoop of blonde hair, which, if my detective's instincts do not deceive me, currently features a pillow dent on the left.

Interesting.

Rita comes into the bagelry.

"Morning, Jim."

"Rita! How you doin'?"

"Yo, Rita!" Joe in the back gives her a big wave of the wooden paddle.

"The usual?" asks Jim.

"Yes, thank you."

"One Salty with a schmear. Coffee light."

"Excuse me. My wife was next," says the preppy husband.

"I'm sorry," says Rita.

"Honey?" says the husband. His voice sounds patient. His eyes, however, are in a hurry. "We are on a schedule...."

"Do not rush me, Theodore!"

Jim goes ahead and fixes Rita her bagel.

Rita is humming to herself. A little smile crosses her face. I guess she spent the night upstairs because her son T. J. is on vacation—up in New York City, staying with an aunt who lives out in Queens. In fact, I know Ceepak paid for the bus tickets. My partner's running a reverse version of The Fresh Air Fund—sending a shore kid up to the polluted city.

Jim takes Rita's cash, keys the register, and hands her back her change, which she drops into the tip cup. Rita waitresses over at Morgan's Surf and Turf. Those who live by tips are always the best tippers.

Finally, she sees me.

"Hey, Danny."

"Hey, Rita. How's it goin'?"

"Fantastic. Looking forward to hearing about your adventures up in Edison."

"Okay."

"Take care now. Have a great day!"

"Sure."

I watch her head toward her car. Then I count to five.

Right on cue, Ceepak comes through the door. So that's how it works: she slips out first, he sneaks down a minute later. Clever.

Now an important thing to know about John Ceepak is that he lives by this very strict, very rigid moral code. It's easier to explain than to follow. Ceepak will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. It's a holdover from his fourteen years in the Army. The West Point Honor Code. This morning, I plan to use it against him. Big time.

The wife in the insectoid sunglasses decides she doesn't really want anything for breakfast—except maybe a new husband—and hurries out the door fumbling with a pack of cigarettes. Hubby follows.

"Good morning, Danny," Ceepak now greets me. He's as bright and chipper as usual. The dimples in his cheeks seem a little more animated this morning, but his hair reveals no pillow wrinkles. Then again, his buzz cut is way too short to dent.

"Have you been waiting long?" he asks.

I smirk. "Long enough."

"You had breakfast?"

"Yeah."

"Awesome."

Here comes the fun part. "So—did Rita spend the night?"

"Yes."

I act amazed.

"Really?"

"Yes. Ready to roll?" Ceepak's still smiling. No guilt. No shame. No bullshit or cover-up. Just the simple, unvarnished truth.

Apparently, it really does set one free.

* * * Two hours later we're at the food court of the Menlo Park Mall outside Edison, New Jersey. We're sitting in plastic chairs at a table near the Cinnabon counter. The scent of warm dough and cinnamon swirls through the air like invisible frosting—it smells even better than sticking your face inside a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Trust me. I know. I've done this.

Ceepak puts a little clear plastic bag on the table. The ring.

"I can't believe you found it!" says Brian Kladko.

It's your standard high-school ring. Big cut stone in the middle of a gold band. The school's coat of arms inscribed on one side; Latin words nobody still alive can translate on the other.

"Where'd you guys say you were from?"

"Sea Haven," says Ceepak.

Kladko doesn't pick up the ring. He drums the cellophane window on his big Cinnabon box. Take-out breakfast for his family.

"Where exactly is that?" he asks. "Sea Haven?"

"Down the shore," I say.

He nods. Smiles. Fidgets with the box flaps. "Okay. Sure. Near Asbury Park, right?"

"Further south."

"Okay."

He looks at his watch. The ring with its big red rock is still sitting there, all alone in its tiny plastic pouch, stranded like the pimply girl nobody wants to dance with at the prom.

"Well, thanks for driving all the way up here and all."

He stands.

"Sir?" says Ceepak, pointing to the table. "Your ring?"

"Oh. Right. Duh."

"We hope you'll come visit us in Sea Haven again," says Ceepak.

"Yeah. Why not? Be nice to see it."

"You've never been?"

"No. Don't think so." His voice sounds a little shaky.

"Interesting," says Ceepak. "Then I wonder how your ring wound up buried on our beach?"

"Guess you'd have to ask Lisa."

"Lisa?"

"My old girlfriend. I gave the ring to her. A long, long time ago."


© Chris Grabenstein, 2007

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