Read an Excerpt
A John Ceepak Mystery
By Chris Grabenstein
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Chris Grabenstein
All rights reserved.
The day starts like so many others with John Ceepak: We bust an eight-year-old girl for wearing high heels.
"She wants to ride the ride!" says the kid's mother, who, I'm assuming, was her accomplice in the beat-the-roller-coaster-height-requirement scam. The ponytail piled up on top of the short girl's head (which makes her look like one of the Whos from Whoville) was, no doubt, another part of the plan.
"The rules regarding the minimum height requirement are in place to protect your daughter," says Ceepak.
"I wanna ride the ride!" The little girl stamps her foot so hard she snaps off a heel.
"This way," says Ceepak, indicating how mother and daughter should exit the line snaking about a mile up the boardwalk from the entrance to Big Paddy's Rolling Thunder, the brand-new, all-wood roller coaster rising up behind us like a humongous humpbacked whale made out of two-by-fours.
It's the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The unofficial start of another Fun-in-the-Sun season down the shore in Sea Haven, New Jersey. Opening day for Big Paddy O'Malley's Rolling Thunder roller coaster.
Ceepak and I are working crowd control with half the Sea Haven PD. The other half is inside on security duty for the dignitaries about to take the first ride around the heaving mountains propped up on wooden stilts. You step far enough away, the Rolling Thunder looks like a K'NEX construction kit sculpture. Or one of those summer camp Popsicle stick deals on steroids.
Ceepak and I walk up the line. He's staring at short people's feet.
This is directed at a boy, maybe seven and very ingenious: He's duct-taped a pair of flip-flops to the soles of his sneakers.
"Please step out of the line."
"What?" says a very hairy man in a sleeveless AC-DC Rolling Thunder T-shirt, the one with the monkey skeletons banging Hell's bell. AC-DC's munching on fried zeppole wads, showering so much powdered sugar down the front of his black tee it looks like his curly chest has dandruff. "What's your freaking problem, officer?"
"Your son's shoes," says Ceepak. "Clearly you are attempting to circumvent the ride's forty-eight-inch height requirement."
"Huh?" father and son say at the same time, because I don't think "circumvent" is a vocabulary word either one of them has learned yet.
"It appears," Ceepak clarifies, "that you are encouraging your son to cheat."
That settles that.
No way is John Ceepak cutting Shorty a break because, as annoying as it sometimes is, my partner—an ex-military man who looks like he could still jump out of a helicopter with a Humvee strapped to his back—lives his life in strict compliance with the West Point Cadet Honor Code: He will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.
"Please step out of the line, sir."
"We're not steppin' nowheres," says the boy's father. "Is it our fault the rules are so freaking stupid?"
"Actually," I chime in, "the rules are there for a reason."
AC-DC Man sizes me up. He's bigger than me. Heck, his beer gut is bigger than me. But I've got a badge on my chest and a gun on my belt. He doesn't. Well, not that I can see. Like I said, he has a laundry bag belly sagging all the way down to the tip of his zipper.
"Come on. Don't youse two have something better to do than ruin a kid's day?"
"The roller coaster isn't going anywhere," says Ceepak. "Perhaps you and your son can come back and ride it later in the summer after he's reached the required height."
"He's riding it today!"
"No, sir. He is not."
"What? You gonna arrest him?"
"Of course not. If you wish to remain in line, that is your prerogative. However, rest assured, an hour from now, when you finally reach the front, your son will not be allowed to enter the ride. Danny?"
We move on.
The crowd is amazing. I know Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of summer, but here in Sea Haven things don't usually get this crowded until after the schools let out near the end of June. Then the population of our eighteen-mile-long barrier island swells from twenty thousand to a quarter million, and we have to hire all sorts of part-time cops just to deal with the traffic and crosswalk congestion—especially near the Rita's Water Ice stands.
So it's incredible to see how many people have shown up on the last weekend in May to ride the new roller coaster erected on the recently refurbished Pier Four. Big Paddy O'Malley, the father of this kid Skip I knew in high school, and his partners bought the whole pier late last summer after a boarded-up ride called the Hell Hole burned down, almost taking Ceepak and me with it.
It's a long story. Remind me. I'll tell you about it sometime.
Anyway, Big Paddy O'Malley and company gutted the old pier down to its pilings, tore out the rusty old rides, hauled away what was left of the Whacky Wheel and the Chair-O-Planes, and built this 100-foot tall, 3,458-foot-long wooden roller coaster with an eighty-foot drop and a top speed of fifty miles per hour.
"I'm afraid that father and son will have a long wait," says Ceepak. "With two thirty-seat trains, the ride has a maximum capacity of only one thousand passengers per hour."
I think Ceepak is a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, just so he can memorize stats like that from their bimonthly newsletter.
Of course, all thirty seats in the first train to hurl (pun intended) around the track will be filled with members of the O'Malley family plus assorted state and local dignitaries—not to mention my buddy Cliff Skeete, a disc jockey at WAVY who will be doing a live remote broadcast so we can all listen to him scream like a terrified two-year-old into his cordless microphone.
"One minute to blastoff!" Cliff's voice booms out of the giant speakers they've set up near the ride's entrance so everybody on the boardwalk (or anywhere else in a hundred-mile radius) can hear. Over the entryway, there's this cool neon sign with retro red letters spelling out R-O-L-L-I-N-G, then T-H-U-N-D-E-R, with jagged blue lightning bolts flashing on both sides.
"Let me tell you, folks," croons Cliff, who calls himself the Skeeter when he's on the air and plays this annoying mosquito buzz every time he mentions his name, "this job has its ups and downs. And today, its gonna have it's ups and downs and ups and downs—not to mention a few twists and turns. Riding in the front car we have Mrs. and Mr. O'Malley—Big Paddy himself. Their sons, Kevin, Skip, and Sean. Daughter Mary—who's sitting right in front of me. You ready to roll, Mary?"
Now I remember what the mean kids used to say about Mary O'Malley: She rode the short bus to school. I believe she is mentally challenged. Slashed her wrists in the bathtub a couple times.
"Oh-kay. Thanks, Mary," says Cliff, because that's what good deejays do: They keep calm and blather on, no matter what. "Thirty seconds until blastoff."
Ceepak and I are up near the front of the line now. I can see the "You Must Be This Tall to Ride This Ride" sign. It's a leprechaun holding out his hand. The O'Malleys are major-league Irish.
Ceepak motions to the kid in a green polo shirt checking heights.
"Be aware that some people in this line are attempting to cheat your height requirement."
"Totally," I say, because Ceepak is over thirty-five and wouldn't know how to say it.
The guy returns to his measuring stick task with renewed zeal.
There are other warning signs posted near the entrance. My favorites are the graphics suggesting that this attraction is not recommended for guests with broken bones, heart trouble, high blood pressure, pregnancy, or "recent surgery."
Sure. The day after my appendectomy, the first thing I'm gonna do is climb on a roller coaster.
"Ten, nine, eight ..." D.J. Cliff is swinging into his Apollo 13 impression. The thing is—roller coasters don't really blast off; they more or less lurch forward, then chug up a hill.
"... three, two, one ... here we go, folks!"
The crowd crammed into the Disney World–style switchbacks cheers because, as the first train crammed with dignitaries pulls out, the second one finally slides forward. Thirty non-VIPs scamper onto the loading dock and jump into the next train's seats. The impossibly long line is actually moving.
Ceepak and I step back, gaze up.
From underneath the latticework of planks, we can see the first train rumbling forward, clicking and clacking on the steel tracks.
"We're on our way," Cliff commentates. "Here comes the first hill! It's a big one!"
Now comes the clatter of the chain running down the center of the track as it grabs hold of the coaster cars and hauls them skyward. This is the part of a roller coaster ride that always scares me the most. The anticipation of what's to come when you finally reach the top. The thought that you could so easily climb out, walk back down, call it quits. And, near the top, it always sounds as if the chain is getting tired, that it's stuttering, that it may not be able to hoist the train all ... the ... way ... up.
But, of course, it always does.
The clacking stops. The first car has reached the summit.
"This is it!" booms Cliff. "Here we go!"
There is no sound for a long empty second.
And then the screams start.
"Oh my gawd!" cries Cliff, momentarily forgetting that he is on the air. "Whoo-hoo! Yeaaaaaah! Whoo-hoo!"
The train rattles down that first hill in a flash.
Now everyone is screaming. The mayor, the O'Malley family, the chamber of commerce, Cliff the D.J.—plus all the people on the ground waiting for their turn to scare themselves to death. It's a screechfest.
They're rolling through the first banked curve. The initial screams subside—just long enough for everyone to catch their breath for the second hill—not as steep but just as exciting.
"Whoo-hoo!" Cliff has 86'd any scripted commentary. He's barely using words anymore. "Boo-yeaaaaaah!"
The train rattles up and down a series of knolls, shoots into a wooden tunnel, zooms out the other side.
"Oh my God!" somebody shouts. "Stop the train!"
"Huh?" Cliff. Confused.
"Stop the train!" It sounds like Skippy. "Stop it!"
Some kind of alarm buzzer goes off.
"Stop it!" That was Skip's dad. Big Paddy. "Stop the damn train!"
In the distance I hear the screech of brakes. Steel wheels scraping against steel rails. Cars bumpering into each other.
Then an awful quiet.
"Oh my god!" Mr. O'Malley again. "Hang on, honey. Oh my god! It's her heart!"CHAPTER 2
"We need someone to call nine–one–one! Now! Omigod! She's in bad shape! I think she's having a heart attack! Call nine–one–one. We need an ambulance!"
Cliff Skeete sounds panicky. His remote roller coaster broadcast has suddenly turned into a breaking news bulletin.
"Go to music! Go to music!"
Bruce Springsteen's "Lucky Town" starts rocking out of the giant loudspeakers. Not the best choice.
"Danny?" Ceepak hops up and over the metal railings penning in the crowd. I hop over after him.
We're in full uniform—radios, batons, guns, handcuffs rattling on our utility belts. People scoot out of our way.
"Ticket booth," Ceepak shouts.
"AED?" I shout back.
Ceepak's hoping Big Paddy was smart enough to equip his thrill ride with an Automated External Defibrillator, a portable electronic device that can revive cardiac-arrest victims—if you jolt them soon enough.
Ceepak barrels over the final barricade, scopes out the small hut where the ticket seller sits.
"AED!" he shouts to the girl sitting stunned behind the window. She doesn't flinch so Ceepak shouts again: "AED!"
Meanwhile, on WAVY, Bruce is singing, "When it comes to luck you make your own." Springsteen. The soundtrack of my life.
"On the wall!" I shout. I have a lucky angle and can see the bulldozer-yellow box mounted on the wall behind the petrified teenage ticket taker.
Ceepak dashes in, yanks the defibrillator off the wall, then darts out of the booth, AED in one hand, radio unit in the other.
"This is Ceepak," he barks as he dashes up the empty exit ramp. I dash after him. "Request ambulance. Pier Four. Possible cardiac arrest. Alert fire department. Potential roller coaster rescue scenario."
"Ten–four" squawks out of his radio as he clips it back to his belt.
"Danny? You know the family?"
I guess I know just about everybody in Sea Haven. I grew up here. Ceepak? He grew up in Ohio, where they don't build roller coasters jutting out over the Atlantic Ocean. He only came to Jersey after slogging through the first wave of hellfire over in Iraq as an MP with the 101st Airborne. Saw and did some pretty ugly stuff. Then an old army buddy offered him a job down the Jersey shore in "sunny, funderful Sea Haven," where nothing bad ever happens.
Yeah, right. Tell it to whoever's having the heart attack.
"When we reach the roller coaster cars, keep everybody calm and seated," Ceepak shouts over his shoulder as we race up the steep ramp. "I'll administer CPR. Wire up the AED. Time is of the essence."
"Okay," I say.
We reach the unloading platform, between the control room and the train tracks.
Ceepak scans the horizon.
"There!" He spots the stranded roller coaster train—on top of a curved hill about a quarter mile up the track. He hops off the platform. "Keep to the walkboard!"
There's a wooden plank paralleling the train tracks. A handrail, too. This must be how the maintenance workers inspect the tracks every morning.
"Use the cleats, Danny."
I notice wood slats secured to the walkboard.
"They act as a nonslip device."
Good. Nonslipping off a giant wooden scaffold eighty feet above the ocean is an excellent idea.
"Short, choppy steps, Danny. Short, choppy steps."
Ceepak takes off, looking like a linebacker doing the tire drill at training camp. I hop down to the narrow walkway plank and, like always, try to do what Ceepak is doing.
Except, I grab the handrail, too.
We're going to have to run down a slight hill, the straightaway where the roller coaster slows down before coming to its final, complete stop in the loading shed. After that comes an uphill bump and a downhill run to a steeply banked inclined turn sloping up to the crest of another much higher hill where the roller coaster train is stuck.
"They should've brought the car down to the finish," I shout, the words coming out in huffs and puffs as I chug up what is basically a 2-by-12 board.
"Roger that," says Ceepak. "I suspect they panicked." He's not even winded. Cool and calm as a cucumber on Xanax.
I'm not surprised.
When he was over in Iraq, Ceepak won all sorts of medals for bravery, valor, heroism—all those things I only know from movies.
Of course, Ceepak never brags about the brave things he's done. I guess the really brave people never do. In fact, I only learned about the Distinguished Service Cross he won for "displaying extraordinary courage" last summer when Ceepak, his wife, Rita, Samantha Starky, and I went swimming at our friend Becca's motel pool. In his swim trunks, I could see that Ceepak has a huge honking scar on the back of each of his legs—just below his butt cheeks.
"I took a few rounds," was all he said.
Then I went online, looked up his citation. It happened during the evacuation of casualties from a home in Mosul "under intense enemy fire." Although shot in the leg, "Lieutenant John Ceepak continued to engage the enemy while escorting wounded soldiers from the house."
When the last soldier leaving the house was nailed in the neck, Ceepak began performing CPR. That's when the "insurgents" shot him in the other leg, gave him his matching set of butt wounds.
Didn't stop him.
According to the official report, he kept working on the wounded man's chest with one hand while returning enemy fire with the other. He brought the guy back—even though he was "nearly incapacitated by his own loss of blood."
Yeah. The O'Malleys don't know how lucky they are John Ceepak was on roller coaster duty today.
Excerpted from Rolling Thunder by Chris Grabenstein. Copyright © 2011 Chris Grabenstein. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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