Hell Hole is the fourth book in the mystery series featuring former hardened military PD and current Sea Haven, NJ police officer John Ceepak and his partner, wise-cracking Danny Boyle. In Hell Hole, Ceepak is confronted with his most personal case yet when he must investigate the alleged suicide of a military corporal who recently returned from Iraq. When it turns out that this "locked stall" rest stop suicide is anything but an open-and-shut case, Ceepak and Boyle realize that the corporal might have been privvy to information that opens up a much larger conspiracy that strikes at the heart of our involvement in the Middle East, and puts them on the wrong side of some very unpleasant people...
About the Author
CHRIS GRABENSTEIN is the award-winning author of four previous novels. Chris lives in New York City with his beloved wife J.J., three cats and a dog.
Read an Excerpt
By Chris Grabenstein
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Chris Grabenstein
All rights reserved.
It's almost 1:00 AM on a Saturday and the partiers inside the rental house at the corner of Kipper Street and Beach Lane are chanting like drunken sailors chasing a runaway keg of beer.
"Two old ladies lying in bed,
One rolled over to the other and said,
'I wanna be an Airborne Ranger.'"
Airborne. That's army. Soldiers, not sailors. Sounds like half a beer-blasted battalion.
"Live a life of guts and danger!"
No wonder the neighbors called the cops. This is definitely a 10-43. That's what we call a disturbance. Since Sea Haven Township is basically an eighteen-mile-long summer paradise where people buy their beer in suitcase-sized cardboard containers, we get a lot of 10-43s every Friday and Saturday all summer long.
Judging by the heap of bottles and cans in both recyclables bins at the curb, the guys renting 22 Kipper are also on their way to a 10-24. Intoxicated. I'd say they've been going at it all night long. I see Bud and Heineken and Foster's with a couple Corona Lights tossed in for good measure. Guess one of the guys is counting his carbs.
"What's our play, sir?" asks my partner for the night. Her name is Samantha Starky. She's a part-time summer cop, which is what I used to be. A Jersey Shore town like ours needs auxiliary cops every summer because, for two and a half months, our population swells from twenty thousand to a quarter million and lots of them spend their entire vacations knocking back malt-based beverages.
My usual partner, John Ceepak, isn't working tonight. Apparently, he doesn't need the overtime pay as desperately as I do. Apparently, he also doesn't need a 52-inch plasma-screen TV before Monday Night Football kicks off in a couple months.
"Should we radio for backup, sir?"
"No," I say. "We'll just knock on the door and ask them to knock it off."
"Ten-four. I've got your six, sir."
Sam Starky? She's twenty-one. Five years younger than me. Watches a lot of cop shows on TV. Rents too many Tom Cruise movies. Top Gun must be a particular favorite if she wants to take my "six."
We weave our way through the jumble of cars parked at all kinds of screwy angles in the street. The house, which I'm sure these guys rented for the week like most of our visitors, looks the same as all the other two-story Colonials standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the streets leading down to the beach.
But most of our visitors drive minivans, not tanks like these guys. Every one of their cars is huge. I count a Suburban, a pickup truck with an extended cab, one Chevy Tahoe, and a couple other SUVs that resemble Darth Vader's helmet on wheels. Their license plates are all from out of state. Pennsylvania. North Carolina. Illinois. Tennessee. Michigan.
"Saw on old lady marching down the road ..."
Great. They've marched on to the second verse.
"Had a knife in her hand and a ninety-pound load ..."
"Should you draw your weapon, sir?" Starky whispers behind me. I carry a gun. She doesn't. I chase bad guys. She writes parking tickets.
"Nah," I say, reflexively checking my Glock to make sure it's strapped to my hip. "They're just drunk."
"They sound like military. They may be armed."
Great. Thanks for pointing that out.
"Come on," I say and lead the way through the bumpers and chrome until we hit the gate that swings open into the postage stamp — size backyard. It's basically a patio with a picnic table and propane grill. I count five pairs of sandals scattered near the door.
Five drunken soldiers against me and Officer Starky. I like our odds. Starky is scrappy. Studies martial arts. Tae Kwon Do, which is different from Karate or Tai Chi. I know this because she's been yammering about it all night while we cruised the sleepy streets of Sea Haven and she made me even drowsier.
Inside, the guys are still screaming and chanting about "ranger school."
"Whatcha gonna do when you get there?" hollers the leader.
"Jump and swim and kill without care," comes the reply.
I rap my knuckles against the sliding glass door.
Inside all I hear is rowdy laughter.
I'm assuming these guys are soldiers. We also get a lot of vacationing cops and firefighters from up in the city who come down here every summer to blow off a little steam. Usually, we just have to ask once and they blow a little quieter.
"Police!" I call out again.
They answer with a blast of hard-core heavy metal: "Cum on Feel the Noize" recorded by a hair group from the eighties called Quiet Riot. If only this riot were.
"I don't think they heard us, sir," says Starky.
Actually, I think they did. The hard rock anthem is simply their subtle way of telling us to go away.
Now the whole aluminum door frame is shimmying. It's like they've got another car parked inside the living room — one of those pimped-out rides with the giant sub-woofers packed in the trunk. I figure this is what an earthquake must sound like — only with better lyrics. This is why my fulltime partner John Ceepak and I only dig eighties music as done by the poet laureate of the Jersey Shore, Mr. Bruce Springsteen.
I knock again. This time I use my whole fist and pound on the glass.
"Sea Haven police!"
Suddenly, this huge mountain of a man appears on the other side of the door. A camouflage cap shades his eyes.
I suck in some air. Try to make my chest look one-third as big as his. The bug light overhead illuminates my badge. I really hope I look like a cop, even though I know I look more like a customer-service rep at Best Buy since I'm wearing the uniform polo shirt up top and cargo shorts down below. What can I say? It's the middle of July.
"Sir, can you please turn it down." I make a big knob-twisting gesture. "The music?"
The guy glares at me some more.
He's like a side of beef squeezed tight inside an army green T-shirt. His jaw is as squared-off as the creases in his cap. I think he has head muscles. I can see the scalp flex above his ears.
Wait. He just smiled. Check that. It's a sneer.
He brings a pint can of Foster's lager up to his lips. Drains it. Brings it down. Crushes the can so I can watch his forearm tendons ripple. Then he marches out of view.
"Crank it up!" I hear him shout to somebody in the living room.
"What's our next move, sir?"
I look at Starky. Her eyes are big and blue — like one of those oil paintings of waifish children on the walls of some of our township's finer motels.
"Should I radio for backup?"
Again with the backup.
"No," I say. "There's not much more we can do. We'll write them up. Slip a summons under the door."
"Sir, I think we should go in there and make them dial it down a notch," suggests Starky. "They're ruining everyone else's vacation!"
"True," I say, "but most courts consider making noise a low-level offense when measured against the high respect they historically hold for the sanctity of the home."
I think I got that right.
Ceepak taught it to me. He's usually the senior partner when we're on patrol. He's memorized the whole Constitution.
"But —" Starky sputters.
Then I remember this other Ceepak trick.
"You have your ticket book?"
I point at all the vehicles parked higgledy-piggledy in the street. "Some of these cars appear to be parked illegally. For instance, that black Suburban is currently blocking an active driveway."
"We may need to call the tow truck!" I say it loud enough to be heard over the "Noize."
Starky scampers back to our patrol car. I think I just made her night. I reach for my radio. If a tow truck shows up, these guys will definitely stop disturbing the peace long enough to come outside to protest their vehicles' imminent impoundment.
Now a van makes the turn off Beach Lane and pulls up in front of the party house. Headlights glint off the FOR RENT sign jammed into the pea pebble front lawn. I hope next week's tenants are quieter. I hope they're monks.
"Excuse me, Officer," says the woman behind the wheel. Her red hair resembles a wiry copper scrub brush. "Is this twenty-two Kipper?"
She opens up her door. I see latex. A bikini made out of stretchy rubber — the stuff they use in bungee chords. She's also wearing spiked high heels. Red. The rear door slides open. Four other women stumble out. Now I see lingerie. A nurse's outfit with an impractically short skirt. A bathing suit made out of yellow caution tape.
Great. The strippers have arrived from Atlantic City.
I turn around to see my young partner gawking at the five exotic dancers. Her jaw is somewhere near her collarbone.
"What?" Red protests.
"You're parked illegally."
"Come on," pleads the last girl out of the van. I see she's wearing an American flag. Stars up top. Stripes down below. "We're here to entertain the troops!"
The music behind me suddenly stops.
I turn around.
It's meaty man from the other side of the patio door. He is currently standing, hands on hips, three feet behind me. Guess he studied "stealth" in Ranger school.
"Is there a problem?" he asks.
"Yeah," I say. "She can not park her vehicle in the middle of a residential street."
"Agreed." He does a series of hand signals to indicate that the lead stripper should return to her van, proceed down the block, and park in an empty spot near the sand dunes.
"Hunh?" Apparently, Ms. Rubber Bands doesn't read military sign language.
"Move your vehicle," snaps lantern jaw. "Now." He turns to the other strippers adjusting their straps and heels and God-only-knows-what-else. "The rest of you? Inside. Move."
The women wiggle and giggle, then squeeze their way around the vehicles and scamper into the house.
"I'm Sergeant Dale Dixon," he suddenly thrusts his hand out toward me. I take it.
He sniffs. Grunts. Releases his grip. "Boyle."
He seems a little wobbly. Those Hawaiian Punch — size tins of Foster's will do that to you. Trust me. I know. There's nothing like Australia's amber nectar to make you forget how to operate your feet.
"I apologize for the noise."
"Yeah, well, your neighbors are complaining."
"Again, I apologize. I'm afraid our homecoming celebration got a little out of hand. I hope you will extend us the professional courtesy of ignoring this minor infraction."
I think about that for a second. Remember how he sneered at me.
"You guys just back from Iraq?"
I look up at him. I have to. He's even taller than Ceepak.
Ah, what the hell.
I've been known to party hardy in my day. This one time, a bunch of us made so much noise, the cops came knocking three different times. We didn't let them in, either.
"You'll keep it down?"
I nod toward Starky. She folds up her summons book. I clip the radio back to my belt. No need to bother the boys over at Undertow Auto Towing.
"But you guys gotta move these vehicles," I say. "I don't want the neighbors calling again tomorrow to complain about that."
"Roger. Will do."
"And you need to keep the ... you know ..." I search for the right word. "The dancers away from the windows."
"Right. We're good to go?"
I nod. "Yeah." I gesture toward the house. "You guys all Airborne?"
"So was my partner."
He looks at Starky.
"Not her. My regular partner. John Ceepak. He was with the 101st Airborne. Military police. You ever run into him over in Iraq?"
"Negative. Never heard of a Ceepak. Then again — it's a big war."
"We were with the three-one-three out of the Eighty-second. Echo Company."
I nod like I know what the numbers mean, which I don't.
"Sergeant Dixon?" It's one of the other partiers — a tall, lanky guy in baggy shorts and flipflops. He's on the patio waving a cell phone.
"Really?" Dixon takes a step toward the house. Pea pebbles crunch under his boots. "Kindly inform Corporal Smith that he is seriously late. This party began at nineteen hundred hours."
The guy with the phone shakes his head. Looks upset.
"Corporal Smith is dead. Suicide."CHAPTER 2
The strippers climb back into their van. Dixon pulls out a thick wad of bills, peels off several, and hands them to Ms. Rubber Bands behind the wheel.
"Thank you for being punctual," he says.
The stripper shakes her head. "No — thank you." The curls in her hair bounce like coils in a rusty bed frame. "Thank you for everything you guys, you know, did for America. You sure you don't want us to hang out? No charge."
"Thank you, ma'am. But we have pressing company business to attend to."
"Okay," she says. "If you change your mind, you know how to reach us."
Dixon chops her a salute. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am."
She giggles and salutes back. I'm reminded of Mariah Carey and a USO show. The van pulls away.
"Lieutenant Worthless?" Dixon calls to the lanky guy, the one who came out to the porch with the Nextel phone and the bad news.
"Yes?" Lanky limps across the patio. I'm thinking Lieutenant Worthless came home from Iraq with some souvenirs in his shin. Shrapnel.
"I need to go ID Smith's body."
"I'll go, sir," says this other guy who just came into the backyard. He's enormous — heftier than Dixon.
"Send me, chief!" Another one stumbles out the door. Italian nose. Hawaiian shirt.
"I'll go!" This one's a short, tough-looking dude, maybe Mexican. He has a khaki bandanna wrapped around his noggin.
There are now four juiced-up guys packed on the patio. All of them look like soldiers. All of them also look tanked.
Dixon addresses the one who volunteered first.
"Are you the squad leader of this unit, Mr. Rutledge?"
"Then stand down. Toss me your car keys."
"And Butt Lips?"
"Go inside and grab me a couple cold beers for the ride."
"Whoa," I say. "Hold up." I raise my hand. The guy Rutledge, the one with the extremely unfortunate nickname of Butt Lips, freezes.
Dixon doesn't like that. He eyeballs me like I'm an insect that just crawled out of his sleeping bag.
"Is there some problem, Officer Boyle?"
"Yeah. You're drunk. No way am I allowing you behind the wheel of any one of these vehicles. You'll kill somebody."
"Duty calls," he says. "The state police insist that one of us come down to their location and identify Corporal Smith's remains. His family, apparently, cannot perform that unwelcome task because they live in Baltimore."
"I understand all that, okay? But you are not driving. Not tonight."
Dixon inches closer. We're nearly nose to nose. Actually, it's more nose to sternum. I feel hot air seep through the vent holes in my cop cap as it steams out of the taller man's snout.
"Shall I call for backup, sir?"
Starky. Ms. One-Track-Mind. I believe she doubts my ability to defuse our current situation without heavily armed assistance. Maybe a full SWAT team.
I shake my head.
"Look, Sergeant Dixon," I say, "you're drunk. Okay? You can not and will not drive a vehicle this evening."
"One of my men needs me! I can't leave him like that. Jesus — dead in a stinking shithouse?"
"I understand. You need to be there. Fine. I'll radio in and get permission to drive you wherever you need to go." I gesture toward our cop car. "We'll give you an official police escort. Flashing lights, siren, the works."
Dixon gives me the slit eyes again.
"You ever see a dead body, son?"
"Yeah," I answer.
One on a Tilt-A-Whirl. Number two came courtesy of the mad mouse. Then there was the guy I personally made dead. Yeah. I've seen a dead body or three. However, I see no need to rehash any of that with Sergeant Dixon.
But my "yeah" doesn't seem to suffice. He keeps at it.
"You ever see a man after he's jammed a pistol inside his mouth and blown the roof off his brain?"
I shake my head. No. That one I have not seen.
This seems to make Dixon ease up. Soften.
"Me, neither," he says. "Fortunately, I've never had one of my men take the coward's way out before. Fucking Smith. Fucking chickenshit. This was supposed to be a party. .."
He reaches into a hip pocket on his cargo pants. Pulls out a leather cigar case. Pops it open, finds a plump stogie. Fires it up with the snapclick of his Zippo.
"Let's roll," he says.
Starky and I follow him to our car. Hoo-ah. We're all off to see another dead body.
The desk sergeant gives me and Starky permission to escort Sergeant Dale Dixon down to the rest stop off exit 52 of the Garden State Parkway.
According to the state police, a janitor working the late shift discovered Corporal Shareef Smith's dead body locked inside a toilet stall in the men's room a little after 11:30 PM. The police also found a MapQuest map tucked inside Smith's shirt pocket. It indicated that he was on his way to 22 Kipper Street in Sea Haven, New Jersey. A cell phone number was scrawled in the margins of the map. So the state troopers called; Lieutenant "Worthless" answered.
The state police reported that Mr. Smith had jammed a pistol inside his mouth and blown a hole through the back of his skull. One shot. It's all you usually get when you take the do-it-yourself route.
Excerpted from Hell Hole by Chris Grabenstein. Copyright © 2008 Chris Grabenstein. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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