It is long past midnight on the New Jersey shore in June 1988 as a blue van rolls quietly along Kearney Avenue in Seaside Heights. The man behind the wheel smiles as he spots seventeen-year-old Edsell Jones stumbling out of a house and drunkenly lumbering down the street. Moments later, the man pulls up next to Edsell and convinces him to take his offer of a ride. Soon, the van is lost within the darkness of the Pine Barrens.
When Lorraine Jones arrives at home the next morning after working the night shift, she discovers Edsell has disappeared. She calls the police, then makes a desperate plea to Edsell's friends, begging them to help find her son. But when the quest leads two teens to a renovated farmhouse in the Pine Barrens that is supposed to be a secret drug-treatment center, they cannot help but wonder if the doctor in charge is really telling them the truth, especially after they hear screams coming from the building.
In this fast-paced thriller, two teenagers unearth a fiery hell from which heroes will rise to fight an enemy larger than they ever thought possible.
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By ELSA BONSTEIN
Abbott PressCopyright © 2014 Elsa Bonstein
All rights reserved.
It was long past midnight on the Jersey Shore on June 19, 1988. A blue van rolled quietly along Kearney Avenue in Seaside Heights, its headlights carving weak circles into the moist sea air.
The man behind the wheel was dressed entirely in black. His round, flat face gleamed in the reflected light of the dashboard as he slowly looked left and right, his hooded eyes peering into the dark alleys and shadowy double-deck porches of the old Victorian beach houses that lined the street.
Seaside Heights, a summer town of sand and surf, was asleep. The carousel was still. The pizza joints, bars, and arcades were quiet.
A faint light shone in an upstairs window. The van slowed to a crawl, and the driver's window slid down. A flashlight clicked on, and a narrow ray of light illuminated a rusted number on the side of a white, wooden column.
Smiling, the man parked across the street and then turned off the headlights.
Ten minutes later, a door opened, and a figure came down the stairs. The upstairs light went out.
Two dark eyes from within the van watched as the dark silhouette stumbled down the street. The driver sat and waited and then turned the ignition key.
Under the street lamps, the kid was tall and thin and looked younger than his seventeen years. He was dressed in baggy jeans, a loose, white T-shirt, and a black baseball cap. As the headlights of the van fell upon him, the kid turned and blinked slowly at the harsh white light. He stepped aside, tripping and stumbling against a parked car, and then pulled himself upright and waited for the bulky vehicle to pass on the narrow street.
The van pulled up next to him, and the driver leaned out. "Looks like you're in rough shape, son," he said.
"Yeah. R-rough shape." The kid spoke slowly, struggling with the words. "Basically, I'm wasted." He giggled, shrugging his narrow shoulders.
"Want a ride?"
"Nah." The kid leaned forward and peered at the man. "Wait, I know you. You're that guy from ..."
The man smiled. "Yep, that's me. I was just having a late dinner with my sister, back there down the street." He gestured with his thumb. "I'm on my way back to Toms River, and I'd be glad to give you a ride home."
The kid stood unsteadily as the passenger door swung open. The voice was kind, solicitous, soft.
"You know, son, I've got a boy your age, and I wouldn't want him wandering around at this hour of the night, especially over that causeway. You don't know what kind of weirdoes might be out and about. C'mon, get in. I'll get you home safely."
The kid stared and tried to focus on the man's face.
"Trust me. I'll get you home safely," the man repeated and leaned toward the boy.
The kid shook his head as if to clear it, and then he launched his body forward into the van. The driver's thick arm shot forward, his stubby fingers grasping the boy's thin arm, pulling him into the van.
The kid slumped onto the tan vinyl seat with a long sigh as he pulled the door shut. As the van accelerated through the silent town, the windows slid up with a soft whir, and the doors locked with a soft click.
"Thanks, man," the kid mumbled. "Thanks for picking me up. I was gonna walk home."
"No problem. Where do you live?"
"Uh, Toms River, Rambling Brook Road. Near the water tower."
"I know the street. What number?"
"Six. Third house on the left, but you can leave me off at the c-corner."
"No problem." The man's voice sank lower. "Why don't you lean back and relax. I'll wake you up when we get there."
The kid's head fell back slowly, and his eyes closed. As the van gently accelerated, the boy's worn Pittsburgh Steelers cap fell off. The driver laughed softly and fingered the hypodermic needle in his jacket. He hadn't needed it after all. This one was a piece of cake.
Did he know where number 6 Rambling Brook Road is? Yes, indeed he did. He knew everything about Edsell Jones--everything. There was a pint of cheap vodka behind a dictionary on the top shelf of the kid's locker at school. There was a stash of pot under a raggedy, old sweatshirt. In his three years at Toms River South High School, Edsell Jones had been called to the principal's office six times. He'd been suspended twice.
Edsell had a high IQ, a low grade-point average, and few friends.
Best of all, there was no Mr. Jones, no brothers or sisters or bothersome aunts, uncles, and cousins. There was just a booze-loving single mama who worked the night shift at Rosie's Diner.
Nelson glanced at the boy. His eyes were closed; the thin face was relaxed. Sometimes a kid stayed asleep all the way to the Barrens. That always made his job easier.
He fingered the hypodermic again. The doctor had warned him, told him to use the needle only if absolutely necessary, and Wilbur Nelson always followed the doctor's orders. There would be serious problems if security was breached.
Nelson smiled, pressed his foot on the accelerator, and turned onto the causeway to Toms River. Fifteen minutes later, the van was in the darkness of the Pine Barrens.CHAPTER 2
The gray, still light of early dawn crept slowly across a woodland meadow. At the edge of the woods, Joshua Reed silently stepped behind the dark, twisted trunk of a pitch pine and stood motionless. His eyes narrowed at a movement on the far side of the field. The stirring was slight. An upright twig moved in the absence of wind.
As the minutes went slowly by, Joshua slowly and imperceptibly shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Stalking had taught him patience; bow hunting had taught him silence. That might be Old Mitch out there.
He remembered the first time he had seen the great deer. Last fall on the second day of bow season, he'd stepped over a shallow creek, looked up, and there, on a small rise not a hundred yards away, stood a huge ten-point buck. The deer had looked right at him, smart-alecky and bold, as if he knew the exact range of Joshua's eighty-five-pound compound bow.
Then suddenly, with an echoing snort and a huge leap that showed white tail and a flash of hooves, the deer had vanished. Joshua trailed him through the scrub oaks and small pines on that cold November morning until the tracks led to a wide, slow-moving stream. He followed the creek for over a mile with his eyes trained on the banks for any sign of the buck, but then the sluggish, tea-colored water emptied into a wide bog. Before him, the dark water lay still as glass between clumps of marsh grass and a tiny island of scrub brush.
The deer had outsmarted him.
For the next few days, Joshua had tried to find the great buck. He stood patiently in the early morning, watching and listening, his breath blowing clouds of coffee-scented steam into the cold morning air. In the autumn gold of late afternoons, Joshua searched the edges of bogs, walking the overgrown trails and abandoned railways of the Pine Barrens, but he never saw the deer again. He even named him Old Mitch, after a barrel-chested sergeant he'd known in his army days.
When firearm season started, Joshua hated it more than usual because during those weeks, citified, bumble-footed, gun-toting assholes wearing Dayglow suits filled the Barrens. They lugged twoway radios, portable tree stands, range finders, artificial scents, and electronic calling devices. Christ almighty, soon they'd be bringing in radar and helicopters to make sure they bagged a deer. The clueless idiots crashed through the trees, sometimes stumbling on a deer, more often as not shooting at cows and dogs and each other in a desperate effort to kill something, anything.
If they were lucky enough to find a deer stupid enough to let them shoot it, some of them did the unconscionable: they cut off the head and antlers and left the carcass for the buzzards.
Joshua sighed heavily. Idiots all, with no sense of the forest or the hunt. Deer were part of the intricate pattern of nature. They were to be judiciously harvested; they were to be used; they were to be respected. Their hides were to be tanned and cured, their meat wrapped and labeled and stacked in the freezer. There was nothing finer on a cold winter evening than the pungent smell of venison surrounded by onions, carrots, peppercorns, and bay leaves slowcooking in his grandma's old cast-iron pot.
Joshua's mouth watered at the thought as he focused on a patch of darkness under the branches of a small red maple. Something was in the shadows that edged the field.
Joshua stood relaxed and motionless, thankful that the slight currents of air blew toward him, not away. As he watched, the darkness moved, and a magnificent buck slowly walked into the meadow, followed by two does.
Old Mitch's mighty rack was covered with the downy moss of summer. It rose above his head like a great, soft crown. With his deep, broad chest and well-muscled neck, he dwarfed the smaller whitetails that grazed on the far side of the meadow.
After a few minutes of browsing, Old Mitch raised his head from the wild oat grass and looked around. He turned and sniffed the air and then looked right at Joshua.
Damn. Joshua cursed his luck. The buck had picked up his scent. The rounded ears pointed toward the pitch pine where Joshua stood. The large, black eyes with their ring of white lashes were trained right on him.
He stepped toward Joshua and then paused. Again he stepped forward and paused. Again and again this hesitant advance continued until Old Mitch stood a mere ten yards away.
Joshua held his breath, scarcely daring to breathe, knowing that if he even blinked, the spell would be broken. Then Joshua's stomach rumbled.
It was enough. Old Mitch snorted a warning, turned in one graceful motion, and bounded across the field with his smaller companions following. With bobbing white tails, they disappeared into the woods on the far side of the field. Joshua released his breath in one long sigh.
Old Mitch had given him a singular gift--a memory to be treasured and brought out again and again. Someday he'd tell his son about a midsummer morning when the biggest buck in the Barrens walked right up and almost shook his hand. He'd tell him about it, that is, if he ever had a son.
Joshua turned and walked back to his cabin, elated at his morning's adventure and anticipating the bacon and eggs he'd cook before heading out to his job site. A half mile from his cabin, a blue van whizzed by him on the old dirt trail, headed east toward Toms River.
He coughed as the dust cloud enveloped him.
Dumb ass, driving that fast in here. What was his hurry?CHAPTER 3
Lorraine Jones wiped her sweaty hands on her blue polyester uniform and then inserted the key into the lock. The door of the old tract home creaked as she pushed it open with the flat of her hand. A wall of stale, cigarette-laced air hit her as she stepped inside. Damn, she thought, Edsell forgot to turn on the air conditioner when he got in last night.
She walked into the tiny living room and flicked the window unit on high. The hell with the electric bill; she needed some pleasure after eight hours of waiting tables at Rosie's.
In the kitchen, Lorraine opened a small orange packet of decaf, poured it into a white mug, added water, and placed it in the microwave. She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.
When the microwave beeped, she grabbed the hot mug and sank down into the old plaid couch in the tiny living room. No morning TV shows today; she was too damn tired.
Lorraine sighed and leaned back. She knew the old, yellow hamper overflowed with dirty clothes, that she was almost out of towels, but she was too tired to care.
It was only June and already stinkin' hot. The night shift at the diner had been brutal. As soon as she walked in the door at eleven o'clock and put on her apron, a whole gang of noisy kids strolled in with their smart mouths and small change. They were followed by bowling teams from the late leagues and couples from the late shows at the movie theater. At two o'clock, a busload of weary gamblers from Atlantic City pulled in. In between, she had the drunks trying to sober up before hitting the Garden State Parkway and the geezers from the retirement village who couldn't sleep nights anymore, and finally Babs and Bernadette from the strip joint down on the Boulevard showed up for their usual order of strawberry waffles. They paid their check with rumpled one-dollar bills.
The sky was turning gray when the regulars started drifting in: cops, nurses, deliverymen, bus drivers, fishing crews. When the morning shift came in, Lorraine had been on her feet for eight hours straight.
She sighed, crushed out her cigarette, and took a sip of the steaming hot coffee. Winters were the best, she mused. Good times started when the cold weather came in and the goddamn Bennies blew out. She could shoot the breeze with the other waitresses, joke around with the regulars, and even sit in a back booth with a newspaper and her own cup of hot coffee.
She'd been at Rosie's for fifteen years now, trying to raise a son on her own. She'd been an only child, and when her parents died and her weasel of a husband left, all in the same year, she'd had to suck it up and do the best she could.
But she had Edsell, and that was enough.
He'd been real sweet when he was a kid, but now that he was a teenager, it was one damn scrape after another. Notes from the principal, letters from the truant officer, visits by social workers at the Division of Youth and Family Services, for crissakes. Worst of all, Edsell's new rattylooking friends started hanging out at her house while she was at work.
And then the shoplifting thing last month. Shit. The little bugger had snatched an eighty-dollar Polo golf shirt from Macy's at the Ocean County Mall and got nabbed as he was leaving the store. What the hell was Edsell going to do with a golf shirt? Wear it to the fucking country club?
Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
Well, he'd been dumbstruck when the cops took him off to the jailhouse and called her at work. Because he had no priors, they released him to her.
That night, she tore up one side of him and down the other. Told him he was on the road to being a piece of shit like his father, told him to get the hell out of her house if he was going to embarrass her in front of her customers at the diner. She said if the cops ever came to her door again, she'd tell them to keep him.
For the first time ever, Edsell shouted back at her, said he was tired of her drinking, sick of cleaning up the house, told her he wanted a real mom, not one who was sleeping, working, or drunk twentyfour hours a day.
They'd stayed up the rest of the night. They'd yelled at each other, and then, finally, they'd talked--and then talked some more. She'd cried, and he'd cried, and when they were through, they hugged.
Edsell promised he'd straighten up.
Lorraine promised to cut back on the booze.
There had been other scenes, other promises before, but that night was different. Something had clicked. She hadn't realized how much she needed her vodka to get through each day. Now she was going to AA meetings, and while she hadn't stopped completely, she'd cut back, taking a nip only when she knew Edsell would be gone a few hours.
And Edsell? He'd been around more since then, helping around the house without whining, taking out the trash, cleaning up his room. Last week he'd even cut the lawn with the old rotary mower.
Best of all, Edsell had gotten himself a girlfriend over in Seaside. Missy was her name. She was small and quiet, no weird hair, no hoops in her eyebrows, no studs in her tongue, just a few tattoos on her arms and one small snake chain around her neck. Since he'd been seeing her, Edsell had started talking about getting a job, about getting enough money for a car of his own. It was almost too good to be true.
Yeah, things were getting better. Maybe someday soon she could throw the bottle out the window for good.
Lorraine yawned, put her empty coffee cup into the sink, and picked up her purse, heavy with dollar bills and assorted change. She'd count it later. Right now she needed some sleep.
As she walked into the tiny hall between the two bedrooms, she suddenly noticed how strangely quiet the house was. Lorraine felt a sudden chill despite the heat. Edsell usually slept with the radio on.
She yanked open his door.
Excerpted from FIND EDSELL! by ELSA BONSTEIN. Copyright © 2014 Elsa Bonstein. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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