I've never really been much of an overachiever, but at age twenty-five I've already done the worst thing any human being can possibly do.
John Ceepak, my partner, tells me I should let it all out. Get it off my chest. Make what the priests might call a full and complete confession.
I'll do like Ceepak suggests.
It all starts with this stupid ring he found.
Last Sunday. Six fifty-five a.m.
Bruce Springsteen is on the radio reciting my most recent résumé: "I had a job, I had a girl, I had something going, mister, in this world...."
I'm sitting in The Bagel Lagoon waiting for Ceepak. He lives here. Not in the restaurant with the bagels—upstairs in the apartment on the second floor.
"She said Joe, I gotta go, we had it once, we ain't got it any more. She packed her bags, left me behind...."
The Boss is laying it on thicker than a slab of walnut cream cheese. Says he feels like he's "a rider on a down-bound train."
I can relate.
She said, "Danny, I gotta go." Okay, it doesn't rhyme as good as it might've if my name was Joe like the guy in Bruce's song. Katie, my ex-girlfriend, moved to California. Grad school. Left town in March.
I hope California is as nice as Sea Haven—this eighteen-mile-long strip of sand-in-your-shoes paradise down the Jersey Shore. I hope it has boardwalks and miniature golf and fresh-cut fries and a fudge forecast that's always smooth and creamy like it has been at Pudgy's Fudgery for the past seventy-five years, at least according to the sign flapping out on their sidewalk near the Qwick Pick Fudge Cart.
On the radio, Bruce is done singing the blues.
At exactly seven a.m. every Sunday, the Reverend Billy Trumble shoves all rock 'n' roll off the air. He's been doing seven a.m. Sundays on WAVY for nearly thirty years.
"Friends, do you think it is early?" his smooth voice purrs. "Trust me—it is later than you think. Judgment Day is nigh...."
"Turn it off," hollers Joe Coglianese from the back of the shop. He and his brother Jim run The Bagel Lagoon. Joe's in charge of stirring the pot where the bagels bob in boiling water. Jim mans the counter. It's the middle of July and already 80 degrees outside. It feels hotter if you factor in the humidity, plus the steam rising up from that humongous bagel vat. No wonder Joe is the grouchier of the two Coglianese brothers.
Jim snaps off the radio.
I tear another bite out of my bagel.
Ceepak should be joining me any minute. We're both cops with the Sea Haven Police Department, and even though it's our day off, today we are men on a mission.
Ceepak, who's like this 6'2", thirty-six-year-old Eagle-Scout–slash–Jarhead, found something he thinks is valuable buried on the beach while he was sweeping the sand with his metal detector.
This is what Ceepak does for fun when there are no Forensic Files or CSI reruns on TV. He's even in this club: The Sea Haven Treasure Hunter Society. It's mostly geeks and geezers, guys who strap on headphones and walk the beach like the minesweeper soldier in every bag of green plastic Army men—who, come to think of it, are now chocolate-chip-camouflage-brown because they've been to Iraq and back, just like Ceepak. They hunt for Spanish doubloons, abandoned Rolexes, rusty subway tokens, discarded paper clips—anything that makes their detectors go beepity-beep.
Anyway, a week ago, Ceepak dug up a ring from P. J. Johnson High School up in Edison. Class of 1983. Inside the ring he found an inscription: B. Kladko. Ceepak being Ceepak, he investigated further and came up with a Brian Kladko who, indeed, graduated from PJJHS in 1983 and still lives somewhere nearby. We're going up there today to take his class ring back to him.
After Katie split, I fill my weekends as best I can.
While I wait, I check out the early-morning crowd. It's mostly tourists from New York and Philadelphia, making them experts on both bagels and cream cheese. They swarm into The Lagoon ordering their favorite combos, forgetting they came down here to try new stuff, like Jersey blueberries or Taylor Pork Roll.
The door opens and all of a sudden it's as though somebody walked in with a load of last week's lox in their shorts. A lot of noses suddenly crinkle, mine included. Phew.
"Something's fishy around here," says the big guy who's just come in. "Look no further. It's me!"
"Me," in this case, is Cap'n Pete Mullen. He runs one of the deep-sea fishing boats over by the public marina, and he's been taking tourists out after tuna and fluke for so long his clothes all smell like they've been washed with Low Tide–Scented Tide.
"Whataya need, Pete?" asks Jim, the bagel brother behind the counter.
"Baker's dozen. Got a charter going out this morning."
Cap'n Pete has a walrus mustache that wiggles like a worm on a hook. He grins at a kid who's staring at him, watching the lip hair twitch. "I'm Cap'n Pete, laddie. But you can call me Stinky. Stinky Pete."
The boy laughs. So do his folks.
"You run a fishing boat?" asks the dad.
Pete is good. He comes in to buy breakfast and ends up hooking and booking more clients. I'm sure before their week in Sea Haven is over this fine family of four will be strapping on life vests and heading out to sea on the Reel Fun—Cap'n Pete's forty-seven-foot Sportfish.
Jim scoops up an assortment of bagels from the bins and hands the bag to Cap'n Pete.
"Well, I best be shoving off." He chops a salute off the brim of his admiral's cap to the little kid. He sort of looks like the Skipper from Gilligan's Island.
Now he shoots me a wave.
"Hey, Danny—have Johnny give me a holler. I missed the last meeting."
I'm in mid-chew so I nod and wave. To hear Ceepak tell it, Pete is the unluckiest of all his treasure-hunting buddies. The guy's never found anything under the sand, although occasionally he manages to reel in an interesting boot or tire on his fishing lines.
I chomp off another bite of bagel and eyeball the couple that just stormed in. Studying people is a habit I've picked up while working with Ceepak. He's always sizing folks up, trying to decipher their real story, the one they're trying to hide.
From Whack A Mole by Chris Grabenstein. Copyright 2007 by Chris Grabenstein. Excerpted by permission of Chris Grabenstein.