During a hazy, hot and humid summer, a retired cop and young slacker take on corruption at a small-town water company in an eco-thriller that is part Elmore Leonard, part Carl Hiaasen, and a 100 percent New Jersey.
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Every Saturday, Pete had an opportunity to pull down a little extra cash without really working. His boss, Mulcek, would call him at home and say, “Hey, you wanna work the shift?” Pete told the guy, “Sure, why not?” It was a cakewalk; Pete sat at the front desk in the air-conditioned lobby of the water company from eight thirty to two, reading the papers or watching the Saturday morning cartoons on the small Panasonic tube. He’d sign in an occasional visitor until it was time for lunch. Another hour and he was home. You couldn’t beat a deal like that.
Normally, Pete pulled the weekend shift alone. But today was special. The company was holding a board meeting. That meant Pete would have Ray for company.
Ray liked rules. Ray had the idea they were guarding a prison or something. He wore his hat while on duty and took the fifteen-minute breaks morning and afternoon as required by New Jersey state law. And he talked about retiring to Florida, or maybe Arizona. It was a big topic with him, and Pete couldn’t blame the guy, old as he was, but come on. Pete wasn’t supposed to know, but the reason Ray worked the weekend shift was that Mulcek paid him cash. Pete knew this because Ray had told him. Ray couldn’t even keep his own secrets.
Today Ray was reading the new Modern Maturity so things were off to a nice, quiet start. Until he started picking his teeth. Pete glanced at the clock they had under the guard desk. It wasn’t yet noon. Each day, Pete figured, Ray got to thinking about lunch and since he couldn’t eat lunch until twelve, he started thinking about lunch-related topics. Like food and chewing and teeth. And soon he was sliding his finger up along his gums, grossing Pete out.
“You want a Twinkie, Ray?”
“It’s not lunchtime.”
“I know it’s not lunchtime, Ray, but I just figured you were in the mood for an appetizer.”
The old guy stared at him. Pete was watching He-Man kick the hell out of Skeletor on the TV, and he could feel Ray’s eyes on him, disapproving.
“That what you do at home, eat snacks before lunch?”
“I’m not home, Ray. I’m working. I just thought maybe you were hungry and I have a Twinkie you can have, all right?”
“I got an egg salad sandwich and some nice grapes and those soft chocolate chip cookies, what do I want with a Twinkie?”
“Obviously you don’t want a Twinkie, Ray. I got that. You got a seriously balanced lunch waiting for you and I don’t want to interfere with that. Just stop making that noise.”
“What noise? I’m only—Good afternoon, sir, can I help you?”
Another classic Ray move: Never wait for people to walk up to the desk. Jump them the second they walk in the lobby. Pete spun his chair around to see who it was. Since eight thirty, Pete and Ray had signed in a dozen or so of the board members, among them their boss, Luke Mulcek; the woman who owned the water company; and a couple of rich guys trying to look Saturday-casual in pressed jeans, T-shirts, and tasseled loafers.
Pete knew all these people by sight. The man who had just walked in was not a member of the board.
It was an old guy holding a kid by the hand. The kid was about four or five, plaid shirt and Osh-Kosh overalls, brown hair and eyes. A real cute kid. Pete looked at the man’s face and nearly said hello.
“Something wrong, mister?” Ray was saying. “You gotta use the bathroom?”
“Why would I need a bathroom?” Buldo said.
It was a funny question. Considering. The man called Buldo was soaking wet from the middle of his plaid shirt down to the bottom of his Wranglers. His work boots sloshed water all the way through the lobby. He would rather stand there, dripping water, than use a bathroom to maybe try drying himself off. Clearly, Pete thought, Buldo had fallen into the reservoir, and now Pete and Ray, uniformed representatives of the Lenape Water Company, were going to hear some bitching.
“You got a phone?” Buldo asked.
Pete hadn’t seen Buldo since he retired as the town’s police chief a few years ago. He was still a big guy: two hundred pounds, short but broad. He had a square-shaped, tanned face with a nose that was long and hard and curled at the tip. Two sharp black eyes glared at them from over the beak.
“We don’t allow use of our phones,” Ray said. “There’s a payphone over there near the bathroom.”
“I don’t need the bathroom,” Buldo said through his teeth. He looked down behind the counter and Pete knew he was looking at the boy. “Would you stop that? I have to talk to these men. You want to go sit down? Here, go sit down.”
The kid didn’t move.
Pete stood and nodded at the kid. “You want a Twinkie?”
Buldo looked at Pete, their eyes meeting for a flash, then he was asking the boy, “Hey, yeah, you want a Twinkie? Here, take the man’s Twinkie, what do you say?” Pete heard a small voice say thanks and watched the kid wander over to one of the fake leather chairs under the mural of Shadow Lakes, which depicted Dutch patroons powwowing with friendly Indians. The Indians smiled and held their arms in a welcoming gesture, as if to say, “Take our land—please.”
“Look,” Buldo said when the kid sat. “I don’t have change and I gotta use that phone.”
“I understand that,” Ray said, avoiding eye contact like a true servant of the people. “But like I say, we’re not supposed to allow use of our facilities.”
“Ray, would you cool it?” Pete said.
“You got a floater out there,” Buldo whispered.
“Shit,” Pete said. “Where’s this?”
“Wait, what is this?” Ray said. “What do we got?”
The guy, Buldo, was trying to keep his voice low. He kept looking at the small boy. “A floater. A body. You better call into town and ask for Chief Omar Benzel. Tell him you want to report a murder. Tell him you advise that he send two patrol vehicles—”
He paused and looked at Ray. “I don’t see you moving.”
“Well, uh, I’m not sure…”
Ray was flustered with the wet man’s talk of floating dead people and murder. Ray didn’t look at Pete once. His elbows rested nervously on the counter as if he were erecting boundaries, showing Pete that he didn’t need help handling the situation. This was routine stuff here, pal. I’m a modern, mature kind of guy and I deal with this kind of shinola every day of the week.
“Can I see some identification, mister?”
“Ray,” Pete said. “Make the call, willya?” To Buldo: “Where is this?”
“Not far. Down the gravel road on the other side of the fence. He’s out in a couple of feet of water but I didn’t want to move him. I had the kid.”
He had the kid. He stuck that in there so you knew. Hey, I would have moved the guy, even dragged him to land, but I had the kid to consider. Ray had his hand on the phone, just resting on the receiver. His fingers quivering. “What were you doing out by the reservoir, mister, fishing?”
“Can I see your permits?”
“I need ID to report a body? What are you, an asshole?”
“Look mister, we have some rules around here. Before I can alert the police, I have to check it with upstairs.”
“Check later. Make the call.”
“Don’t think I won’t report that your language was abusive and uncalled for.”
Ray finished this speech and sat back in his seat without relaxing. He picked up his black horn-rims and put them back on his face. He started reading the magazine again.
Buldo squinted at Ray’s uniform. Checking out the name tag hanging over his pocket. “Ray, is it? Listen to me, Ray. I’d like you to pick up that phone and call the cops, Ray. If you don’t, Ray, I’m liable to do it myself and I might get more abusive and break six or seven of your fingers. Got it?”
Ray’s hand went for the phone.
Buldo nodded his chin at Pete. “You. Come with me.”