Free Fallby Chris Grabenstein
Just in time for summer beach reading, the latest novel in the series that the New York Times calls “clever Jersey Shore mysteries. A perfect satire.” (Marilyn Stasio)
“I didn’t do it!” is something cops hear all the time. But when the plea comes from a close friend who’s fallen on hard times, it’s tougher to ignore,
Just in time for summer beach reading, the latest novel in the series that the New York Times calls “clever Jersey Shore mysteries. A perfect satire.” (Marilyn Stasio)
“I didn’t do it!” is something cops hear all the time. But when the plea comes from a close friend who’s fallen on hard times, it’s tougher to ignore, especially for young Officer Danny Boyle.
It’s the start of another action-packed summer for the wise cracking Boyle and straight-arrow cop (now Chief of Detectives) John Ceepak down the Jersey Shore as they do their best to help Danny’s friend, a young nurse who claims she has been falsely accused of aggravated assault. Ceepak’s unshakable code of honor is tested when he trusts that the nurse is telling the truth. It’s stretched to the limit when one of the nurse’s home health care patients turns up dead. Now Ceepak and Danny must answer the hard and horrible question: “Did we just help a friend get away with murder?”
Get ready for another fun and fast-paced page-turner from Anthony and Agatha award-winner Chris Grabenstein.
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Read an Excerpt
A JOHN CEEPAK MYSTERY
By Chris Grabenstein
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2013 Chris Grabenstein
All rights reserved.
FOR A COP, THERE'S NOTHING WORSE THAN HEARING AN OLD friend say "I didn't do anything, Danny!" two seconds after you pull her out of a nearly lethal cat fight.
Of course, these days, that's just the icing on the cake. Or, as I like to say, the suds on the Bud.
Despite all the "Life Is Good" T-shirts on sale at the Shore To Please Souvenir Shoppe, life has not been so great lately down the Jersey shore in "sunny, funderful" Sea Haven.
First off, there was a hurricane (that turned into a super storm) named Sandy, which, until last October, was also one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. All of Sea Haven was shut down for two full weeks. No one was allowed on or off our eighteen-mile-long barrier island, except, of course, the governor of New Jersey and the President of the United States.
Eight months later, our battered seaside resort has pulled back from the brink. It's early June and everybody's excited about the upcoming summer season.
Everybody except me.
Because of bummer number two: John Ceepak is no longer my partner.
See, late last August they made Ceepak the Chief of Police. By early October, he was tired of pushing paper, untangling paper clips, and wearing these "Buy One Get The Second At Half Price" suits his wife Rita found for him at the Men's Wearhouse. So, after pulling us all through Sandy (don't worry, some day I'll tell you that story, too), when things had more or less settled down in the new year, Ceepak initiated a search for his own replacement.
After interviewing dozens of candidates, the township council hired another new Chief of Police. An older guy named Roy Rossi. With the new boss on paper-shuffling duty, Ceepak and I were poised to become the SHPD's first team of full-time detectives.
But that never happened.
See, I forgot to mention last year's other big blast of hot air and swirling garbage: our mayoral election.
The guy we wanted to win didn't.
And the guy who got re-elected has never been very fond of Ceepak or me. About fifteen seconds after all the New York and Philadelphia TV stations declared that the Honorable (how they came up with that title for him, I'll never know) Hubert Sinclair had won re-election, the guy initiated budget cuts. Said we had to bring the deficit under control for the sake of our grandchildren. Tough choices had to be made.
That's what he said. What Mayor Sinclair meant was that people who ticked him off had to be made miserable.
Buh-bye SHPD detective bureau.
Ceepak is still chief of detectives. He just doesn't have anybody in his tribe. He is allocated "personnel" on an "as-needed" basis. So, mostly, I spend my shifts cruising the streets in a patrol car.
With my new partner.
"You hungry?" Sal asks as we cruise down Ocean Avenue just after sunset.
We're heading toward the southernmost tip of the island where we'll make a U-Turn and head back up to the lighthouse on the northernmost tip. Down south is where the swanky people have always lived in their bajillion-dollar beachfront bungalows. The first homes rebuilt after the super storm. The kind of homes other people like to burglarize, especially during the first week of June, when the tourist season isn't in full swing and the island is still mostly empty.
"We ate an hour ago," I tell Santucci.
"I'm still hungry."
"Shift ends at eleven. Pick up something on the ride home."
"We should swing by Pizza My Heart. If you're wearing a uniform, they'll give you a free slice and a fountain drink."
"Which you don't take because it's against the rules."
Yes, in Ceepak's absence, I am the patrol car's Keeper of The Code.
The ones they told you about in that lecture you slept through at the police academy, I want to say.
But I don't.
Because 24-year-old Salvatore Santucci is the late Dominic Santucci's nephew. I was there when his uncle—who was on the job with the SHPD for fifteen, maybe twenty years—was gunned down by a psycho killer just outside the Rolling Thunder roller coaster. So I cut Sal some slack. We all do.
"We're cops, Sal," I say. "We can't accept gifts."
My young partner (well, he's three years younger than me) slumps down in the passenger seat to pout and fidget with the tuning knob on his radio. "I don't want a freaking 'gift,'" he mumbles. "I want a slice. Sausage and peppers."
I ease the steering wheel to the left and we roll into Beach Crest Heights. I give the white-shirted guard in the gatehouse a two-finger salute off the tip of my cop cap. He waves his clipboard back at me. It's Kurt Steilberger. We went to high school together.
"A gift," I say to Santucci, "means any fee, commission, service, compensation, gratuity, or—"
The radio interrupts my Remedial Graft lecture.
"Unit A-twelve, what is your twenty?"
I grab the mic.
"We're in Beach Crest Heights. Over."
"We just received a nine-one-one call. Report of Assault. One-zero-two Roxbury Drive. The caller says his mother is fighting with his nurse."
"We're on it."
I jam down on the accelerator. Tires squeal. Engines roar. We thunder down the road. I feel like I'm in the middle of a Springsteen song.
We screech to a stop in the driveway made out of interlocking pavers fronting 102 Roxbury Drive. It's a brand-new, three-story, vinyl-sided mansion with bright white deck railings all over the place.
"Caller is Samuel Oppenheimer, age thirteen," reports the radio. "He is still on the line with nine-one-one."
"We are on scene," I say into the radio.
"Will advise nine-one-one."
"Have them tell Samuel to let us in the front door, if he can do so safely."
If not, I'll let Santucci kick at the lock. I'm betting he was paying attention when they taught him how to do that at the Academy.
I toss the radio mic to the floor and swing open the driver side door.
"I'll take the lead," I say.
"Let's roll!" shouts Santucci, sounding totally stoked.
Inside the house, we hear a scream. Female.
And then another, younger voice. Samuel.
"Stop it! The police are right outside!"
I race up the steps to the front porch. Bang on the door. Someone yanks it open on the other side.
Samuel Oppenheimer. He's in a wheelchair and clutching a cordless phone. He looks terrified.
"Over there!" he shouts, pointing to a sunken, white-on-white living room.
I see the back of a raven-haired lady in a purple tracksuit. She is throttling a kinky-haired, younger woman in yellow scrubs who is wildly swinging her arms and trying to kick her way free. But the older woman has her hands locked in a vice grip on the younger woman's throat, and that keeps the nurse far enough away that her slaps, scratches, and kicks don't land.
I move closer.
I can't see the younger woman's face. It's buried beneath a whirlwind of flailing curls.
"Break it up!" I shout.
"Knock it off!" adds Santucci.
I grab hold of the strangler's shoulder.
She snaps her head around. All sorts of chunky gold jewelry clatters on her neck and ears as she shoots me a dark and dangerous look. I half expect her to hiss.
But her brain finally kicks in and she realizes there is a uniformed police officer in her living room with his hand firmly attached to her clavicle.
Now her eyes go all wide and terrified.
She drops her chokehold.
The nurse gags and reflexively brings her hands up to her neck.
"Thank goodness you're here!" says the older woman.
I quickly scan her face. Her hair is jet black, her nose perfect, her skin taut and wrinkle-free. She looks like she wears makeup in her sleep.
"That vile creature attacked me!" she screeches in my face.
"You ... attacked ... me," gasps the other woman.
"I did no such thing."
"Ma'am?" I say. "I need you to move to the other side of the room."
"This is my home—"
Yeah. I sort of shouted it.
"Mom?" says the boy, up in the higher level in his wheelchair. "Please? Do like he says."
"You heard Officer Boyle," says Santucci. "Move it."
I look over to the nurse.
She's my age. Maybe twenty-seven, twenty-eight. A mountain of dark, curly hair. Olive skin. Chocolate brown eyes that aren't quite dark enough to hide her fear.
And, of course, I know her.
It's Christine Lemonopolous. One of my old girlfriend Katie Landry's best buds.
"Christine?" I say, arching up an eyebrow, hoping for a good explanation.
Her lips quiver into what she probably hoped might end up as a smile. It doesn't.
"Can you breathe?" I ask. "Is your airway clear?"
"What's this all about?" I ask.
"I didn't do anything, Danny."
"Liar," snarls the other one.
"I swear on Katie's grave." Christine's voice is raw and raspy. "I didn't do anything!"
Like I said, there's nothing worse than hearing that from an old friend.
Especially when she drags the late, great love of your life into it.CHAPTER 2
IT'S A GOOD THING THE MCMANSION HAS SO MANY ROOMS.
It's time to separate the combatants.
The lady of the house is fuming in one corner of the sunken living room. Christine stands in the other. The boy with the phone is parked near the blizzard colored sofa, shaking his head.
I know how he feels.
"Ma'am?" I say to the woman in the designer tracksuit. "Your name, please?"
"Shona Blumenfeld Oppenheimer. Widow of Arthur Oppenheimer."
She puts "Arthur" in italics when she says it. I guess I'm supposed to be impressed. I'm not sure why but, then again, I don't know that many impressive people.
"Mrs. Oppenheimer," I say, "I need you to wait in another room."
"He's separating the parties involved in the altercation," snaps Santucci, who, I guess, paid attention in cop class that day. "It's what we do when attempting to ascertain what happened in a dispute such as this one you two got goin' on here."
"You're going to take her statement before mine?" Mrs. Oppenheimer flaps a well-toned arm toward Christine.
"No, ma'am." I nod toward the boy. "We need to talk to your son first."
"I'm his mother. I should be there."
"No, ma'am. You should not."
"He's not well. I'm going to call my lawyer."
I give her a confused look. "Why?"
"To make sure everything is ..." I can tell she's struggling to find the right word. "Legal!"
"Don't worry, it will be," says Sal. "Officer Boyle here was trained by John Ceepak."
"Who?" says Mrs. Oppenheimer as she and Santucci finally move out of the living room.
"Biggest overgrown Boy Scout you could ever meet. Come on, I'll tell you all about him ..."
I grin. Santucci actually handled that pretty well.
"Christine?" I say when they're out of the room.
"Your neck okay?"
"Do you want an ambulance?"
"No. I don't think it will swell up any more."
"How 'bout you wait in the kitchen? Maybe put some ice on it?"
She leaves and I move into the upper living room. Take a seat in a very comfy, very white chair. The boy in the wheelchair is staring at the phone in his lap. Turning it over and over.
"You're Samuel Oppenheimer?"
"You feeling good enough to talk?"
"Great. So, you're the one who called nine-one-one?"
"Good for you. Smart move."
Samuel looks up. We make eye contact. "Thanks," he says.
"So," I say with a shrug. "What happened?"
"They got into a fight, I guess. My mom's been sort of stressed lately."
"What do you mean?"
"She and my nurse, Christine, have been getting on each other's nerves. They used to be friendly. Not anymore."
"Christine, Ms. Lemonopolous, she's here a lot?"
"Yes, sir. She lives here."
Oh-kay. A live-in nurse? Not sure where this is going. Christine is curvy and cute. Don't know if she's, you know, dating anybody or even whose team she's playing on. So I just nod a little. Hope Samuel will give me more to work with. He does.
"Christine is just my home health aide. She doesn't really have a place of her own, I guess, and can't afford to find one because she quit her real job, so Mom let her stay here rent-free in exchange for helping me with my feeding tube and, you know, the seizures. She also does housecleaning, the laundry, and I guess you'd call it babysitting if Mom stays out late on a date. Stuff like that."
"So, how long has Christine been living here with you guys?"
"About a year, maybe. I had somebody else before, but I like Christine better."
I press on.
"So, what happened tonight?"
"I dunno. They both went totally ballistic. I was in my room. All of a sudden, I heard shouting. Then something crashed and glass shattered."
I look to the floor. See shards of clear and green glass, not to mention a broken-off wine goblet stem.
"I rolled out here as fast as I could," says Samuel, "and saw the two of them going at it. Christine was kicking at Mom. Mom was grabbing Christine's throat. I told Mom to stop. She told me to, you know, 'eff-off.'"
"That when you called nine-one-one?"
"Yeah. You guys got here fast."
"We caught a break. We were in the neighborhood. You okay staying here tonight?"
He gives me a look. "What do you mean?"
"You sure you'll be safe? If not, we've got places you could go ..."
"Don't worry. My mom isn't going to strangle me, if that's what you mean."
"Okay. If you feel different, just call nine-one-one. Or, here." I hand him one of my business cards. "Call me. I'll come pick you up."
Samuel cracks a grin.
"Will you turn on those sirens again?"
I grin back. "Roger that."
Next up is Christine in the Kitchen with the Ice Pack.
We're not playing "Clue." She's administering first aid to her neck wounds.
A pair of purple bruises—what Ceepak would call ligature marks—have blossomed where Mrs. Oppenheimer's two hands used to be.
"Do you mind if I take a photo?" I say, gesturing toward her neck.
I pull out a small digital camera.
"Can you hold your chin up a little?" I say.
I snap some very unflattering photos of her bloated and bruised neck.
"So, what happened?"
"We had ... a disagreement." Her voice sounds like she spent the night screaming at a Bon Jovi concert.
"Some issues. So, I tried to defuse the situation by walking out of the room. That's when she attacked me."
I don't react to that. "So, you live here? Take care of Samuel?"
"Yes. Part-time. He needs help with his G-I tube. And seizures. I'm basically on call all night long. Sleep in the guest room closest to Samuel's bedroom with a baby monitor. On weekends I clean the house and do the laundry. Stuff like that."
"You still do weekdays at Mainland Medical?"
Mainland Medical is the hospital on the far side of the causeway that operates our Regional Trauma Center. It's where the Medevac helicopter took Katie Landry when a sniper who was gunning for me shot her instead. Christine was one of Katie's emergency room nurses.
"No," says Christine, kind of softly. "I left Mainland a while ago."
"Really? What happened?"
"I'd rather not talk about it, Danny. Not right now. Okay?"
"Sure," I say. "Stay here. I need to talk to Mrs. Oppenheimer."
"She'll lie, Danny."
I nod and grin. "Thanks for the tip."
Mrs. Shona Oppenheimer and Officer Santucci are waiting for me out on one of the decks hanging off the back of the house.
"Mrs. Oppenheimer?" I say. "What happened here tonight?"
"I wanted to print out a new diet I'd found on line for my sister, but Christine was hogging the printer with paperwork related to her position with Dr. Rosen."
"Arnold Rosen, DDS. The retired dentist who lives in that big house up in Cedar Knoll Heights. It's still the nicest piece of shorefront property on the island. It sits atop a bit of a bluff above the dunes, so Sandy's storm surge didn't swamp it."
I nod. The folks in Cedar Knoll Heights were lucky.
"Dr. Rosen is ninety-four," Mrs. Oppenheimer continues. "Not drilling too many teeth these days."
Santucci chuckles. Guess these two had hit if off in my absence.
"Christine works at the dentist's home during the day, seven to seven. She works here nights."
"So," I say, "you two were fighting over the printer?"
"Hardly," says Mrs. Oppenheimer. "Apparently, some paper became jammed in the feeder, and Christine started using the most foul language imaginable in front of my very impressionable young son."
"Your son was in the room with the printer?" I say because that's not where the son said he was.
"No. He was in his room. But Christine was shouting so loudly, I'm sure he heard every word. That's when I calmly asked Christine to leave."
Excerpted from FREE FALL by Chris Grabenstein. Copyright © 2013 Chris Grabenstein. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Chris Grabenstein is the Anthony and Agatha Award-winning author of the critically acclaimed thrill reads Tilt A Whirl, Mad Mouse, Whack A Mole, Hell Hole, Mind Scrambler, and Rolling Thunder, plus the young adult chillers The Crossroads and The Hanging Hill. He lives in New York City.
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