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Tilt a Whirl

by Chris Grabenstein

Paperback, 330 pages, Perseus Books Group, List Price: $14.95 |


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Tilt a Whirl
Chris Grabenstein

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NPR Summary

A billionaire real estate tycoon is found murdered on the Tilt-A-Whirl at a seedy seaside amusement park in the otherwise quiet summer tourist town of Sea Haven. John Ceepak, a former MP just back from Iraq, has just joined the Sea Haven police department. The murder pushes his deep sense of honor and integrity to the limits, as the truth spins wildly in every direction.

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The Jersey shore's iconic Star Jet roller coaster was inundated after Superstorm Sandy. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

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Bodies On The Boardwalk: Murder Stirs A Sleepy Jersey Shore

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Tilt A Whirl

Chapter 1

Some guys have a code they live by, some guys don't.

John Ceepak? He has a code.

Me? No code. Not unless you count my ZIP code or something.

I took this job because I'm 24 and Sea Haven is, as you might've guessed, a sunny haven situated by the side of the sea — an 18-mile-long stretch of motels and beach houses and bait shacks and ice cream shops called stuff like "Do Me A Flavor" and the "Scoop Sloop."

Tourists come here to soak up the sun, lick down orange-and-white swirl cones, and bury each other neck-deep in hot sand. My hometown is best pictured on one of those perky placemat maps crammed with squiggly cartoons of buildings like The Shore Store, Santa's Sea Shanty, and King Putt Golf.

It's Saturday in Sea Haven.

I pull into the parking lot outside the Pancake Palace at 7:30 a.m. When I was in high school, I worked here as a busboy. Now I'm what they call a summer cop. I help out during the muggy months when the population of Sea Haven quadruples and then quintuples and then you need a plastic pass pinned to your swim trunks to even think about walking on the beach.

I swing the customized Ford Explorer into a parking spot near the newspaper dispensers at the side door. The Ford is white with tropical turquoise and hot pink lettering that lets everybody know we're cops with a beachy kind of 'tude.

Inside, the restaurant isn't very crowded. Saturday is changeover day. People who rented last week are leaving, people renting this week will show up later, after the maid brigades have vacuumed the sandy floors and tossed out the abandoned seashell collections. This morning, I see mostly locals eating sensible stuff like eggs and toast, cereal and muffins. It's the tourists and day-trippers who go for the specials – chocolate chip French toast, Coco-Loco Pancakes and a little something I like to call The Heart Stopper: a waffle, with crispy bits of bacon baked into the batter, topped with two scoops of butter and a fluffy igloo of whipped cream.

Like the t-shirt says: "My diet's on vacation, too!"

Ceepak meets me here at the Pancake Palace every morning at 0730. He likes to use that Army clock lingo. We've met here every morning since he joined the force back in May.

John Ceepak doesn't like to drive.

Apparently, something happened while he was soldiering with the 101st Airborne over in Iraq that put him off driving for good. I'm not sure what because he's never told me about "the sandbox." Usually he just tells me where to turn left, where to park, stuff like that.

Sometimes, we talk Springsteen. Ceepak digs The Boss and knows all the lyrics to all his songs, even the ones nobody else listens to like that "Ghost of Tom Joad" song. Ceepak can quote "Tom Joad".

We hook up here in the Pancake Palace because it's close to Ceepak's apartment — a one-bedroom job situated over The Bagel Lagoon, a block up the street at 102 Ocean Avenue. Ceepak never orders bagels for breakfast. Guess he sees enough at home. He usually orders bran flakes and, if he's feeling frisky, some kind of fruit to plop on top. I'm not sure, but I think the bran is part of The Code.

I've only known the guy a couple months, but I know one thing for sure: he's basically been a "good guy" all his life.

He just finished a ten-year stint with the Army, ending with Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was Military Police, the guys with the MP patches on their shoulders. That's where Ceepak met our boss, Chief Cosgrove. They served together in Germany seven or eight years back and that's how Ceepak swung this cushy "no-driving" deal. His old army buddy gave him a new job and a personal chauffeur. Me. The part-time summer guy who knows which side of the Ford the gas tank is on.

Before the Army, Ceepak told me he studied Criminology. Before that, he was an Eagle Boy Scout. Before that? I'm not sure, but I'll bet he was one helluva hall monitor in kindergarten. This is his first civilian cop job. He told the local newspaper "he loves being on the job in Sea Haven" because he can "help all the children visiting stay safe while enjoying wholesome family fun."

Okay. Fine.

I like working here, too. Mostly because we get to wear cargo shorts and baseball caps and a polo shirt with the police patch sewn on the chest. Ceepak carries a gun; I don't, which is fine by me — as long as I get the baseball cap. Chicks dig the cop cap.

Don't get me wrong — I want kids to have fun, too, but I'm more interested in the college kids who hang out on the boardwalk and the young babes I meet over oysters and brewskis down at The Sand Bar.

Ceepak is a cop 24-7. He spends his spare time reading about forensics and what he calls "interesting cases." I know he has cable TV because he's always telling me about these shows he watches where blood-splatter patterns and grass clippings and DNA solve crimes. Last weekend, some friends and me were heading down to the Sand Bar and I invited Ceepak to join us.

"Can't," he said.

Turns out,The FBI Filescomes on the Discovery Channel Saturdays at 9 p.m.

"It's an episode called 'Shattered Shield,'" Ceepak said. "Sure it's a summer rerun, but I'd like to catch it again. I missed a few nuances the first time..."

I don't think I'll be asking Ceepak out for a bucket of beers again anytime soon.

Ceepak is sitting in a booth near the big glass windows up front in the Pancake Palace. He likes to feel the sun warm his face while he eats breakfast and that's where the sun likes to sit at 7:30.

He waves at me, like I don't know it's him or where he might be sitting. He sits at the same table every morning.

Ceepak is hard to miss. He's a big guy, about six-two. I figure he must be thirty or thirty-five, but he has this sweet baby face and a big boyish grin. He even has dimples. When he's not on duty or watching cable TV, he's down at the gym. I don't think he's taking yoga or Pilates classes. He's probably flinging hundred pound dumbbells up over his head — pumping up his biceps and triceps and all those other "cep" muscles I don't even know if I have. The police shirt clings and bulges on his chest. It just sort of hangs on me.

Ceepak keeps his hair looking pretty military. It's razor tight around the ears but he let it go hog wild on top: it's at least an inch or two long up there with a cowlick flip in the front that adds to his whole Baby Huey look.

He doesn't wear the uniform shorts, prefers the cargo-pants. More pockets to carry stuff in. And he likes the official navy blue windbreaker: it has SEA HAVEN POLICE stenciled across the back in big yellow letters just like the FBI or the DEA or the cops onCops.

"Morning, Danny," he says, as sunny as the booth he's sitting in. "How's it going this fine day?"


"Awesome. I ordered your coffee. Black, per usual."


I don't have much besides coffee at breakfast. I'm usually lugging around the chicken wings or mozzarella sticks or raw oysters I ate the night before.

Most of the booths and tables near us are filled with shopkeepers fueling up for another day of selling trinkets and taffy. But there are a few tourist families scattered here and there — the ones with hyper kids who'd never let mom and dad sleep in on a Saturday, changeover day or not. The ones who fling their forks and topple sippy cups and steal their sister's crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu and help Princess Griddlecakes escape from Margarine Mountain.

At least that's who's sitting in the booth beside ours.

Behind Ceepak's head, I see two monsters bouncing up and down on the banquette, a boy and girl standing so they can pour syrup out of sticky bottles and soak their plates three feet below. I think they're playing airplane.

I anticipate a sugar-rush hurricane will hit the table in under five.

"Someone stole a tricycle this morning," Ceepak says.


He checks his notebook, I guzzle coffee. He's raring to go; my engine isn't even primed.

"From a residence over on Rosewood," he says. "Chrome colored three-wheeler. Valued at $350."

"350 dollars? For a tricycle?"

"Roger that. It was stolen right off the folks' front porch. Call came in at 0630."

Did I mention – Ceepak has a police scanner in his apartment? No boom box or CD. Just the scanner.

"We might want to swing by and see what we can see," Ceepak says, pulling a white-bellied strawberry off his bran mound.

Now, I'm sure the guys on duty at 6:30 a.m. have already swung by and taken everybody's statement. But Ceepak wants to go "see what he can see," which means he wants to hunt for footprints or dandelions that came from some lawn on the other side of town or skid marks and tire treads on the driveway. See what kind of forensic evidence we can dig up. See if it's enough to get our own show on the Discovery Channel.

From Tilt A Whirl by Chris Grabenstein. Copyright 2005 by Chris Grabenstein. Excerpted by permission of Chris Grabenstein.