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MIND SCRAMBLER
Chapter One

Mind Scrambler I got shackles on my wrist
Soon I'll slip 'em and be gone
Chain me in a box in the river
And I'll rise singin' this song
Trust none of what you hear
And less of what you see
This is what will be, this is what will be

—Bruce Springsteen, "Magic"

Copyright, Bruce Springsteen, 2007
I bumped into my old girlfriend Katie Landry this afternoon. Six hours later, she was dead.

We met in the lobby of the Xanadu hotel and casino down in Atlantic City.

"Danny?" She had seen me first.

"Hey." I was sort of surprised. I don't think Katie had set foot inside the Garden State for more than a year, not since she took off for sunny California.

As Katie walked across the extremely carpeted lobby, I noticed she still had a slight limp—a souvenir left over from her last summer in Sea Haven, the New Jersey resort town we both used to call home.

She kissed me. On the cheek. The way cousins do—except, you know, in Arkansas.

"It's so good to see you!" she said.

"Yeah. You, too." Then, I kissed her cheek and we looked French. Maybe Russian.

She stepped back and gave me the once-over. "Danny Boyle! You look great!"

"Thanks. So do you!"

She did, too. Katie had always been the most beautiful woman in the world, ever since we met in third grade. I think it's her eyes. They're emeralds—all green and sparkly. And her smile? The Mona Lisa gets jealous.

"Where's Ceepak?" she asked. "You guys still partners?"

"Yeah. He's across the street in the bus depot, dealing with the driver." John Ceepak and I are cops with the Sea Haven P.D. It's early October, the off-season down the Jersey shore, so we're on a week of what they call administrative leave, taking care of some loose ends, helping with an out-of-state homicide trial.

"We came down on the Coast City bus," I said. "The driver was doing seventy on the straightaways."

"Is that a code violation?"

"Big time. Posted speed limit is sixty-five from milepost 80 south to milepost 27."

A former MP who served in Iraq, John Ceepak lives his life in strict compliance with the West Point Honor Code: He will not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do. Speeding on the Garden State Parkway? Definitely cheating.

"He got married, you know."

"Yeah. Olivia told me. Rita, right?"

I nodded.

Olivia Chibbs is one of our mutual friends back home. She used to work with Ceepak's wife, Rita, at Morgan's Surf and Turf, this classy restaurant where they fold the napkins to look like birds. Classy birds.

"So what're you doing in A.C?" I asked.

"New job."

"Cool."

"I was going to call," she started.

"Definitely," I said so Katie wouldn't have to further violate Ceepak's code and tell me another lie.

When last we spoke—oh, maybe fifteen months ago—Katie was working on her master's degree in elementary education at this college out in California. Before that, she had been a kindergarten teacher and worked summers at Salt Water Tammy's.

She had also been my girlfriend for most of August that last summer we spent together.

"So, what's the job?" I asked to avoid all the stuff I didn't want to talk about.

"Mary Poppins," she said, hugging a stack of books close to her chest.

I wished I were a book.

"I'm the nanny and tutor for Richard Rock's kids." She flicked her blazing red hair sideways to indicate an illuminated poster for a show called Rock 'n Wow! currently playing at the Xanadu's Shalimar Theatre. Richard Rock, the star of the show, was a handsome dude in a tuxedo and cowboy hat.

"He's a magician," Katie explained.

"Ah-hah."

"Actually an illusionist."

"Unh-hunh."

A couple months ago, Olivia had told me Katie was dating some new guy out in California. That was fine by me. I had been doing the same thing.

With girls, not guys. Jersey girls. Nothing too serious but then again, I'm twenty-five and there are plenty of fish in the sea. Jelly fish, stingrays, sharks, electric eels.

"They mostly do Vegas," said Katie.

"Hmm?" I said because I'd drifted off on that whole fishing expedition.

"The Rocks. This is their first gig in Atlantic City. They're based out of L.A. Hired me a couple weeks ago. Hey, you should come see the show. It's very wholesome. Good clean family fun."

Rats. I had been hoping for G-strings and feathered headdresses.

"I'd love to," I said anyway.

"You busy tonight? I could score you guys a couple tickets."

"Cool. I need to check with Ceepak first. We're working on this thing.

"How come you're not in uniform?"

"It's an unofficial thing."

"Undercover?"

"Nah. We're actually helping out a Prosecuting Attorney up in Ohio. Taking a deposition from an Atlantic City drifter who's on the witness list because he once shared a jail cell with the accused."

"What's the charge?"

"Murder."

"Wow."

"Yeah."

And I left out the juiciest part: the defendant is this bitter old alchie named Joseph Ceepak—my partner's father. The guy we're deposing here in Atlantic City is a migrant con artist named Gary Burdick (A.K.A. Barry Gerduck, A.K.A. Larry Murdoch, A.K.A. various other lame aliases that all sound like his real name). Burdick once shared a drunk tank with Ceepak's old man on a night when Mr. C totally spilled the beans and bragged about how he got away with, well, murder. Burdick knows all sorts of incriminating details, enough to lock up Mr. Ceepak for life, which, trust me, would be a good thing for his son, not to mention the rest of us.

Katie took a quick glance at her wristwatch. If you want to know what time it is in Atlantic City, you need to carry a watch or a cell phone because there are no clocks on the casino walls and no windows to let you know whether the sun is up, down, or sideways.

"Katie?" a little girl hollered from behind a shimmering gold column. "Katie!" She popped out, then hid again. I think she was playing peek-a-boo. Either that or perfecting her obnoxiousness.

"I need to run," said Katie.

"One of yours?"

She nodded. "Yep. Britney Rock."

Britney skipped-to-her-loo across the carpet. She was carrying a huge slab of peanut brittle with chomp marks in it—the kind cartoon dogs bite into people's pants. I pegged Britney to be eight or nine. Blond with a mouth full of braces.

"Hi," I said and gave her a little finger wave.

"Who's this guy?" she asked Katie.

"Danny Boyle."

The nine-year-old made a rolling arm gesture to indicate she needed more information. "And?"

"He's an old friend."

"He was never like your boyfriend or anything, was he?"

Katie didn't answer.

"'Cause Jake's cuter."

"Jake?" I said, as nonchalantly as possible.

Katie shook her head. "He's this guy in the show."

"He's a hottie," said Britney. "Total stud muffin."

I bent down to brat level. "Hey, you know what? Katie and I have known each other ever since we were younger than you!" I sounded so much like Mr. Rogers I should've been wearing a cardigan.

The kid crinkled her nose to let me know I had just totally grossed her out. "Where's your brother?" Katie asked. Her eyes swept across the lobby to the Kubla Khandy Shoppe, so named, I figured, because, according to some poem an English teacher made me memorize once, Xanadu was where Kubla Khan his stately pleasure dome did decree. "Britney? Where is Richie?"

"I dunno. I'm not the nanny."

Katie did not whack the mouthy midget like I might've. She's always been good with kids. Probably why she was so good with me. No matter what, Katie Landry stayed sweeter than pancake syrup sucked out of its tub through a straw, something my buddy Jess and I did one morning at Burger King when we both ordered the French Toast Sticks.

"Britney?" Katie said patiently. "You promised you'd keep an eye on your brother if I let you guys go into the candy store."

"Whoops. Sorry. Forgot."

"Danny, I've gotta run."

"There he is!" The girl screeched and pointed at a cute kid who had to be her little brother: blond mop top, blue eyes, and a super-sized smile smudged with fudge.

"Hi, Katie!" the boy waved. His hands looked like he'd been soaking them in chocolate fondue pots.

"Richie!" said his sister. "You are a mess!" She stomped over to harass him.

"Hope the Rocks pay well," I said.

"More than my last teaching job."

"Cool."

"I really need to run, Danny. The kids are in the show."

"Does their father make them disappear?"

"No. They do this quick bit at the beginning."

The boy scampered across the carpet to tug on Katie's belt loops. I pegged him to be about six and already in love.

"Nanny Katie?"

"Yes, Richie?"

"Can we go for a ride in a chariot again?"

Katie clued me in: "That's what he calls the rolling chairs out on the boardwalk."

"Makes sense." The rolling chairs are these canopied wicker loveseats on wheels. Been an Atlantic City fixture since forever. You pay a sweaty person in a polo shirt, he or she will push you where you want to go. The boardwalk here is about four miles long. Wheeled chairs are a good thing.

"Please?"

"Not right now, Richie. Maybe later. After you finish your homework."

"Okay." He skipped off to join his sister who was hunkered down near a burbling fountain contemplating a coin dive.

"What time do you guys go on?" I asked.

"Eight."

"Cool."

"Yeah."

"Yeah."

"Danny?"

"Yeah?"

"We need to talk."

"Okay."

Katie and I used to talk all the time, even before we started dating. Now, once a year, she sends me a Christmas card. I send her one of those free e-mail deals with the dogs singing "Feliz Navidad."

"They're nice people," Katie said. "The Rocks..."

Her words just sort of petered out.

"But?" I said.

"I don't want to say anything bad..."

"But?"

Her eyes were locked on Britney and Richie.

"Are you okay, Katie."

"Yeah. Fine. It's just—Families. You never know who's telling the truth. We should talk."

"Ceepak and I are heading back to Sea Haven tomorrow afternoon."

"How about breakfast?"

"Do you know a good buffet?"

Katie grinned. "Down the Boardwalk. At Bally's. All you can eat for fifteen dollars. Omelets made to order. Six kinds of sausage."

"Great. I won't wear a belt."

"How's nine?" she asked. "I have to take care of the kids' breakfast first."

"Katie?" the girl screamed. "Richie drank scum water!"

"Did not!"

Katie sighed.

I reached out, touched her arm. "Nine will be fine."

"Great. Gotta go." She dashed over to make sure the kids didn't take a bath in the fountain.

If I had known "nine will be fine" would be the last thing I ever said to Katie Landry, I probably wouldn't have rhymed it like that.


© Chris Grabenstein, 2009

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