With her low-level law-enforcement career on the rocks, it’s make-it-or-break-it time for zaftig Loretta Kovacs. She’s been assigned to the ragtag Parole Violators Search Unit, a.k.a. the Jump Squad. All her buttons are pushed when she goes undercover as a desperate dieter at a Florida fat farm in order to nab an embezzler who’s a perfect size 2. But untangling the mysteries surrounding this case is going to be harder than passing up a pastry . . .
“Bruno’s characters are more than just quirky dressing for the plot . . . It moves fast and furious, but along the way his characters’ struggles with their own doubts and failings anchor the reader to them.” —The Nashville Banner
“A divertingly comic entertainment with a bittersweet bite.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Devil’s Food is good, grainy crime writing, a little bit like New Jersey’s answer to Elmore Leonard.” —The Advocate (Greenwich, CT)
Read an Excerpt
Loretta Kovacs stood out in the hallway and stared at the black lettering on the thick glass pane in the door.
State of New Jersey Department of Corrections Bureau of Parole Parole Violators Search Unit
Mentally she added the words that should've been painted underneath:
aka PVSU aka the Jump Squad aka the End of the Line
She sighed. Bad attitude, she thought. This time she wasn't going to start off on the wrong foot. No more bad attitudes. She was determined to make this work. She had no choice really. There was nowhere else to go in Corrections after the Jump Squad. Truth be told, this was the bottom, the place where the screwups got their last chance, the end of the line.
Suddenly, out of the blue, that old black mantra started chanting in her head, droning in her ears like a swarm of killer bees coming over the horizon: I'm fat; I'm single; my career is in the toilet ... I'm fat; I'm single; my career is in the toilet ... I'm fat; I'm single; my career is in the toilet ...
She cleared her throat to chase it away before it worsened her already bleak frame of mind. Besides, that stupid mantra wasn't entirely true, she told herself. Her life wasn't that bad. All right, so her career was in the toilet — but no one had flushed it yet. And yes, she was single and had no prospects, but she wasn't over the hill; she could still meet someone. And she wasn't that fat. It wasn't as if she were obese. Two hundred and thirty-two pounds, five foot six and a half. That's not fat. That's zaftig, Rubenesque, big-boned.
A Milky Way wrapper rustled in the pocket of her jacket as she reached for the doorknob, and her face drooped. Who was she trying to kid? She was fat. But so what if she was? Only stupid people got hung up on looks. And fat people can always lose weight; stupid people can't grow brains. Given a choice, she'd rather be smart than skinny. That's what her father the lawyer always used to tell her. It's what you know that counts, not what you look like. Unfortunately, she hadn't learned enough to please him, though. To this day he was still deeply disappointed in her because she hadn't gone to law school, and Dad was never very good at hiding his feelings. Unfortunately.
Her father's stern face with its constantly constipated expression loomed over her like a ghost. She was thirty-four years old, living her own life, and she knew it was stupid to feel this way, but still, just once, she'd like to please him. Just once before he died.
She opened the Jump Squad door, knowing her father wouldn't approve of this. But as soon as she walked in, a wonderfully familiar smell wrinkled her nose and displaced the cranky spirit of her dear old dad. It was cinnamon. Buttery cinnamon. Powerful cinnamon. Like at those hot cinnamon bun places, the ones that seemed to be at all the malls whenever she was trying to buy clothes. She snapped her head back and tossed a cloud of wavy dirty blond hair over her shoulder, determined to ignore the aroma because she'd just had a candy bar, which she really shouldn't have had in the first place. She took in the big room instead.
The place was deserted. Eight battered metal desks were positioned back-to-back in pairs, but there was no one sitting at them. Small basement windows covered with security gates lined the top of one wall. The opposite wall held a long row of scratched gray file cabinets. Thick files were stacked on top, the piles leaning against each other like a bunch of drunks.
Loretta was about to close the door behind her when she spotted the source of the cinnamon smell. On a typing table behind the door where an electric coffeemaker was set up there were two aluminum trays of cinnamon buns — one full, the other with just two left. She furrowed her brows over her green eyes, then one brow slowly arched above the other. Were these here for the taking? she wondered. Or did they belong to someone? She was tempted to help herself, but the mantra started playing in her head again. I'm fat; I'm single; my career is in the toilet ... There was a definite correlation between being fat and being single, and cinnamon buns were one of her seventy-seven deadly sins — right between eclairs and Devil Dogs.
She started to close the door, but paused for a moment to stare at the lettering on the glass again. The Jump Squad. Never in a million years did she think she'd ever wind up here. Her father would die if he ever found out. The parole officers who worked here were no better than skip tracers, bounty hunters for the state. Since parole violators are the same as prison escapees under the law, they have none of the rights of due process that regular citizens have, which means that PVSU officers can do anything to bring in a jumper. Anything. No wonder this unit had such a bad rep.
Loretta let out a long sigh and started talking to herself over the mantra before she really got depressed, telling herself that this couldn't be as bad as it seemed and that anyway, it was only temporary. This wasn't going to be the rest of her life, because she had a plan. She'd spend six months with the Jump Squad, then apply for a staff counselor job, which paid better and had regular nine-to-five hours. In the meantime she'd take the law boards and apply to law school. If everything worked out, she could go nights and have her degree in five years, and then she could go into practice with her sister, which is what she'd originally intended to do ten years ago when she'd graduated from college. That was before she had gotten sidetracked with social work and a career in corrections. But it's never too late to salvage your dreams, she kept telling herself. Kovacs and Kovacs was still a definite possibility, and if that happened, her sourpuss old man would have to find something else to be disappointed about. If everything went right, she could definitely make it happen. Because you can always make the best of a crappy situation if you just try hard enough.
She looked down at the cinnamon buns and sighed. "Yeah, and someday I'll be a size six," she muttered under her breath.
"Coming through! Outta the way, please. Coming through!"
Loretta glanced up and quickly stepped out of the way as a wrecking ball of tangled bodies banged into the door and crashed into the room. She caught the flying door before it slammed into the typing table and glass shattered all over the cinnamon buns.
A roar of pain and sorrow trailed behind the two passing bodies like smoke from a locomotive. The lead body was the cowcatcher, his face the screaming whistle. The man was as big as a buffalo and just as shaggy, with reddish-brown hair down to the middle of his back and a scraggly beard that covered his chest. He was at least six foot six, with a powerful, topheavy build — slim in the hips but huge in the chest. He wore a black leather vest with some sort of biker insignia sewn on the back, a black T-shirt, and frayed blue jeans with holes in the knees. Tattoos covered every visible inch of both arms.
The other guy, who had this monster in an armlock, forcing him forward from behind, was no more than average in size, with dark, slicked-back hair, a round face, and sloped-back eyes. Loretta would almost have said it was a kind face except for the fact that the big biker was screaming bloody murder, desperately pleading with the man not to break his arm. Actually, he was kind of cute, Loretta thought, except for the greaseball haircut.
As the smaller man tried to guide the unruly buffalo through the office, the big man suddenly dug his heels in and shouldered his captor into the file cabinets. The biker started ramming his back against the smaller man, rattling the cabinets and spilling files all over the floor until the place looked and sounded like a demolition site. But the smaller man didn't seem terribly fazed by the brutal hammering. In fact, he looked bored. Loretta could see that he still had the big man trapped in the armlock.
After about two minutes of this, the biker stopped to catch his breath.
The smaller man peered over the biker's shoulder. "You through yet, Joe? You get it out of your system yet?"
The buffalo snarled. "Eat shi — oooww!"
With what seemed like a simple flick of the wrist, the smaller man torqued up the pressure on the biker's arm and brought him to his knees. Loretta winced in sympathy.
The smaller man stood over the fallen beast, shaking his head. "You're acting like a big baby, Joe. You know that? I'm ashamed of you."
"You're breaking my friggin' arm, Marvelli."
"Whattaya want me to do? Give you a hug? All right, Joe. C'mon. I'll give you a big hug if it'll make you feel better. Here."
The man named Marvelli released the biker and opened his arms like Luciano Pavarotti, tilting his head and grinning as if he were perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones.
Joe slowly dragged himself to his feet, shaking his weary head, but then suddenly he spun around, scowling like a mad dog. He lunged headfirst, diving into Marvelli's midsection, propelling him backward into the nearest desk. The desk slid several feet with Marvelli on his back on the desktop, Joe face down on top of him. It slammed into another desk, and the momentum — or maybe it was Marvelli; Loretta couldn't tell which — flipped Joe up and over onto his back on top of the next desk, like a great big flapjack. Marvelli quickly scrambled to his knees and trapped the biker's head between them, then started to massage the bridge of his nose. Joe reached up to grab Marvelli's head, but Marvelli rested the pads of his thumbs on Joe's eyelids.
"You like your eyes, Joe?"
Joe instantly dropped his arms to his side.
"Good boy, Joe." Marvelli continued to massage the big man's forehead, circling his eye sockets now and then to remind him not to get cute. "Just relax, Joe. Take deep breaths. Think about the shore. Waves coming in on an empty beach. Just you and the waves on this nice beach —"
Joe started to reach up again, but Marvelli's thumbs were quicker. "They don't do eye transplants, Joe."
Joe let his arms fall.
Marvelli took his thumbs off and massaged the biker's temples some more. "Just go with it, Joe. Let yourself drift. Watch the waves. If you listen, you can hear them. Isn't it nice? Of course, it is. See, I can feel you starting to relax already."
Loretta couldn't believe what she was seeing. Who was this guy? He was incredible.
"Okay, now that you're calm, Joe," Marvelli said, "let's talk about your life, your future."
"Frig you, Mar —"
"Uh-uh!" The thumbs returned to Joe's eyes.
Joe went limp.
"Good boy. Now just listen to me and don't talk. Talking gets people into trouble. Believe me, I know. There aren't that many people in this world who can kept their mouths shut, but those are the only ones who stay out of trouble. Believe me."
The biker snorted. "You never shut up, Marvelli."
"That's true, but I'm different."
"'Cause I'm always in trouble, and it doesn't seem to matter whether I shut up or not, so I may as well keep talking. Anyway, I know more than most people, so I sorta got a license to talk."
"Hey!" Thumbs on eyes again. "Watch your friggin' mouth, Joe. There's a lady here." Marvelli looked over his shoulder and smiled at Loretta. "How ya doin'?"
"Fine," Loretta said. He had a nice smile. But that hair ... yuk!
"You didn't get hurt or anything?" Marvelli asked. "When we came in, I mean."
"No, I'm okay. Don't worry about me." In truth, Loretta's heartbeat was just starting to calm down.
"You sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Good." He turned back to Joe, adjusting his knee clamp on the biker's shaggy head and settling into a more comfortable position as he continued the face massage. "Now, Joe, what were we talking about?"
"Oh, yeah. Well, what can I tell you, Joe? You violated the terms of your parole, pal."
"Yeah, but I been trying to tell you, man. My bike broke down out in Ohio. I was stuck."
"For five months you were stuck? Can't get Harley parts in Ohio? They don't have phones in Ohio? You couldn't have called your PO and let him know where you were?"
"He's an assho —"
Thumbs on eyes. "I said watch your mouth." Marvelli turned to Loretta. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," she said. "You should hear me sometimes."
He laughed. He had a nice laugh. A little hoarse, like Gene Kelly's.
"So, Marvelli, what happens to me now, man?" Joe asked. "I gotta go back to the joint, right?"
Marvelli rubbed the biker's chubby cheeks. "It's not up to me, Joe. You gotta go before the parole board, see what they say. Who knows? Maybe they'll buy your Ohio story and give you another chance with parole."
"Or they'll send you back to prison."
"For how long?"
"That's up to them. I just bring you guys in."
"Friggin' bounty hunter, that's all you are, Marvelli."
"Joe! You hurt my feelings. I'm insulted. How could you call me such a thing? I'm a trained professional and a public servant. You make me sound like some kind of cattle rustler."
"You're worse, man. You're crazy. You're the one who oughta be locked up."
Marvelli considered it for a moment. "Maybe I should. You know, you're not the first one to say that."
All the while Marvelli never stopped kneading the biker's face. Loretta just stood there, staring at the two of them. She'd never heard of a parole officer who operated like this. Some POs coddle their cases, others bully them, but she'd never seen anyone who could do both at the same time.
"All right, Joe, fun time is over," Marvelli said. "I'm gonna let go of your head now, and we're gonna go straight back through that hallway to the lockup, so I can process you. Okay?"
Joe nodded between Marvelli's knees.
"You calm now?"
"You're not gonna try something stupid?"
Joe shook his head.
Marvelli spread his knees, and the biker sat up on the desk, chin on his chest in defeat. Marvelli hopped off and rubbed his knees, wincing with pain. "Knees ain't what they used to be," he said to no one in particular.
"Ah, excuse me —" Loretta was just about to ask him where she could find the supervisor's office when she suddenly spotted Joe's hulking form coming up behind Marvelli like a Kodiak bear up on its hind legs. The big man had a desk chair hoisted over his head.
Loretta opened her mouth, but she couldn't get the words out as the old fear overtook her. She panicked, thinking for a split second that she was Joe's intended victim. She had to force herself to point and shout, "Heads up!"
Marvelli turned his head toward Joe, and without even standing up from his bent over position, he moved into the big man's gut, staying low and getting under him just as the chair came crashing down. Joe missed his target, and the momentum of the blow combined with a little lift from Marvelli's standing up flipped the big man over onto his back. He hit the floor like a natural disaster.
Marvelli stood over him, shaking his head in disappointment. "Goddammit, Joe! When're you gonna learn?"
Joe's eyes were out of focus. He was in a daze.
Marvelli picked up the chair and put it back on its wheels, then grabbed Joe by the hair and hauled him up into a sitting position. He pinned the big man's arm back behind him and forced him to his feet with the armlock again. Joe groaned and cursed, then made a half-hearted effort at breaking loose, but Marvelli torqued his wrist another notch and got him back under control.
"C'mon, Joe. Let's go."
Panting hard, Joe nodded at the tray of cinnamon buns. "Think I could get me one of those, Marvelli? I'm kinda hungry."
Marvelli frowned down at the buns and shook his head. "You got enough problems, Joe. You don't need sugar. Now that I think about it, that's probably where all your problems started. Too much refined sugar when you were a kid. I bet you were one of those hyperactive kids. That comes from too much sugar. That's probably when your weight problem started, too."
"Frig you, Marvelli."
Yeah, frig you, Marvelli! Loretta thought, instantly changing her mind about him. She hated it when skinny people shot their mouths off about how other people should lose weight. What gave them the right? These were the same little skinny minnie shit-asses who used to make fun of her in school when she was a kid. They had no idea how much hurt and misery they caused. All of a sudden Loretta felt sorry for Joe. The skinny kids probably used to make fun of him, too, when he was in school. Before he dropped out and became a full-time scumbag, that is.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Devil's Food"
Copyright © 2008 Anthony Bruno.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
I will read almost anything, but I could only get to page 70 of this book before I gave up. It was advertised as being funny, but I found it stupid, cheesy and mean. I hate the way some author's ( and there have been quite a few lately) make fun of people who struggle with their weight and think it is funny to demean them, while it is painful for these people instead. I do not recommend this book. The writing and plot were not very good either. AD