Book Excerpt


Chapter 1


It was long past midnight on the New Jersey shore, Monday, June 19, 1988. A blue van rolled quietly along Kearney Avenue in Seaside Heights, its headlights carving weak circles into the moist sea air.

The man behind the wheel was dressed entirely in black. His round, flat face gleamed in the reflected light of the dashboard as he slowly looked left and right, his hooded eyes peering into the dark alleys and shadowy double-deck porches of the old Victorian beach houses that lined the street.

Seaside Heights, a summer town of sand and surf, was asleep. The carousel was still. The pizza joints, bars, and arcades were quiet.

A faint light shone in an upstairs window. The van slowed to a crawl, and the driver’s window slid down. A flashlight clicked on, and a narrow ray of light illuminated a rusted number on the side of a white, wooden column.

Smiling, the man parked across the street and then turned off the headlights.

Ten minutes later, a door opened, and a figure came down the stairs. The upstairs light went out. Two dark eyes from within the van watched as the dark silhouette stumbled down the street. The driver sat and waited and then turned the ignition key.

Under the street lamps, the kid was tall and thin and looked younger than his seventeen years. He was dressed in baggy jeans, a loose, white T-shirt, and a black baseball cap. As the headlights of the van fell upon him, the kid turned and blinked slowly at the harsh white light. He stepped aside, tripping and stumbling against a parked car, and then pulled himself upright and waited for the bulky vehicle to pass on the narrow street.

The van pulled up next to him, and the driver leaned out. “Looks like you’re in rough shape, son,” he said.

“Yeah. R-rough shape.” The kid spoke slowly, struggling with the words. “Basically, I’m wasted.” He giggled, shrugging his narrow shoulders.

“Want a ride?”

“Nah.” The kid leaned forward and peered at the man. “Wait, I know you. You’re that guy from …”

The man smiled. “Yep, that’s me. I was just having a late dinner with my sister, back there down the street.” He gestured with his thumb. “I’m on my way back to Toms River, and I’d be glad to give you a ride home.”

The kid stood unsteadily as the passenger door swung open. The voice was kind, solicitous, soft.

“You know, son, I’ve got a boy your age, and I wouldn’t want him wandering around at this hour of the night, especially over that causeway. You don’t know what kind of weirdoes might be out and about. C’mon, get in. I’ll get you home safely.”

The kid stared and tried to focus on the man’s face.

“Trust me. I’ll get you home safely,” the man repeated and leaned toward the boy.

The kid shook his head as if to clear it, and then he launched his body forward into the van. The driver’s thick arm shot forward, his stubby fingers grasping the boy’s thin arm, pulling him into the van.

The kid slumped onto the tan vinyl seat with a long sigh as he pulled the door shut. As the van accelerated through the silent town, the windows slid up with a soft whir, and the doors locked with a soft click.

“Thanks, man,” the kid mumbled. “Thanks for picking me up. I was gonna walk home.”

“No problem. Where do you live?”

“Uh, Toms River, Rambling Brook Road. Near the water tower.”

“I know the street. What number?”

“Six. Third house on the left, but you can leave me off at the c-corner.”

“No problem.” The man’s voice sank lower. “Why don’t you lean back and relax. I’ll wake you up when we get there.”

The kid’s head fell back slowly, and his eyes closed. As the van gently accelerated, the boy’s worn Pittsburgh Steelers cap fell off.

The driver laughed softly and fingered the hypodermic needle in his jacket. He hadn’t needed it after all. This one was a piece of cake.

Did he know where number 6 Rambling Brook Road is? Yes, indeed he did. He knew everything about Edsell Jones—everything. There was a pint of cheap vodka behind a dictionary on the top shelf of the kid’s locker at school. There was a stash of pot under a raggedy, old sweatshirt. In his three years at Toms River South High School, Edsell Jones had been called to the principal’s office six times. He’d been suspended twice. Edsell had a high IQ, a low grade-point average, and few friends.

Best of all, there was no Mr. Jones, no brothers or sisters or bothersome aunts, uncles, and cousins. There was just a booze-loving single mama who worked the night shift at Rosie’s Diner.

Nelson glanced at the boy. His eyes were closed; the thin face was relaxed. Sometimes a kid stayed asleep all the way to the Barrens. That always made his job easier.

He fingered the hypodermic again. The doctor had warned him, told him to use the needle only if absolutely necessary, and Wilbur Nelson always followed the doctor’s orders. There would be serious problems if security was breached.

Nelson smiled, pressed his foot on the accelerator, and turned onto the causeway to Toms River. Fifteen minutes later, the van was in the darkness of the Pine Barrens.