New Jersey is probably not the first place most people think of as a place to set a book series. But when I started writing the Phoenix Institute superhero romance series, I knew my heroes had to live in New Jersey.
It all comes down to attitude.
I lived in New Jersey for over twelve years in various locations. All four of my kids were born there. I worked in central, northwestern and northeastern New Jersey. I knew the area and the people fairly well. and that contributed to my decision. But mostly, it’s the people.
They’re direct and they have their own way of doing things. They have their quirks. They’re also not shy about it.
While watching Chris Christie on television during coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, I turned to my husband (a Jersey guy) and said ,”If you were casting a movie and wanting someone for governor of New Jersey, you would cast someone who looked and sounded just like Chris Christie.”
None of my characters are Jersey natives but they’ve definitely absorbed some of the attitude. Like the heroine of Phoenix Legacy, Delilah Sefton, who carries a hammer in her glovebox. Just in case. Or the regulars in Del’s bar, located in the area surrounding Lake Hopatcong.
The lake is an odd place.
It’s the largest lake in New Jersey but because it has so many twists and turns, it’s not easy to navigate, so it’s not known as a popular summer recreation area, like the Shore. It’s not even a natural lake, as was constructed as part of the state’s extensive canal system. Because it’s so meandering, the surrounding roads are twisty too, making a car chase irresistible, especially since the hero, Philip Drake, owns a 1967 Dodge Charger.
Del drives during the chase. Jersey girls know how to drive stick.
Del’s bar, simply called “Bar & Grill,” was a place my husband and his friends stumbled onto while driving around one night. They stopped when they spotted a sign that said “Bar & Grill.” The place had a real name but no one could remember it, so it become just Bar & Grill. Regulars at B&G included locals, various bikers who stopped by, and the curious. Sadly, it no longer exists but at least I preserved a piece of it in the book and maybe even a few of the regulars.
The only positive surrounding this circle was the all-night diner nearby.
One other fun quirk about New Jersey: you cannot pump your own gas. I had fun with that element this scene from Phoenix Legacy:
Philip tossed a vaguely army-like green jacket over his black T-shirt and walked with Gabe into the parking lot. He jingled the keys to the Charger in his pocket, debating whether to take the car.
After a minute of waiting, Gabe spoke. “I thought we were in a hurry.”
“I’m deciding how to play it with the store clerks. If I take my car, it’ll be remembered. That might be useful, but it also might be foolish, depending on whether Genet finds out someone was asking about him.” The Charger had been useful at Del’s bar, gaining him instant solidarity with the regulars. This time, though, his instincts said to take a vehicle that wouldn’t be noticed. “We’ll take one of the vans. You have keys?”
“Sure,” Gabe said. “I’ll drive.”
Once they were off, Gabe glanced at him. “Do you do that all the time?”
“I don’t understand your question.”
“I meant do you weigh all the angles and outcomes before you act all the time?” Gabe turned from the Institute entrance onto the road.
“That must get tiring.” “
When you start decoding a program or hacking into another system, you investigate all the possible outcomes before you start before deciding how best to approach them. It’s the same thing.”
“That’s tech, though. What you do is a hell of a way to live your life.”
Very true. “You were a tech nerd among your fellow officers in the Army. A gay tech nerd. You had to weigh all the angles to survive. That’s similar.”
“Ah, it wasn’t so bad. At first I was the skinny nerd. Once I proved I could handle basic, though, I was the tough skinny nerd. Then when I got assigned to tech in the field, I was the skinny nerd miracle worker. Nobody liked me much— they figured I was gay—but we needed each other. During our first engagement, though, I was able to call in air help. Then I became their skinny gay tech miracle worker.” He grinned. “After a year, I had a squad of butch straight guys willing to beat up anyone who made fun of me.”
Philip nodded. Combat made the strongest bonds.
“Were you ever with a unit?” Gabe asked.
“No.” No band of brothers for him. It seemed like he’d spent his life undercover, blending in by becoming whatever was needed. It had, he mused, included being gay twice.
“If you work by yourself, why ask me to go with you today?” Gabe asked.
“I was nearly blown up, attacked and almost shot yesterday. Not smart to go out alone, even on a job like this, which seems simple. At the least, you’ll be a witness if something goes wrong. You’re armed, yes?”
Gabe asked no more questions and Philip offered no more conversation. As they pulled into the service station, Philip ran a hand through his hair to muff it up. He hadn’t shaved this morning. Good, that would complete the look.
“Follow my lead,” Philip ordered.
“If I can tell what it is,” Gabe said.
The service station was modern, with a big canopy loaded with blaring fluorescent lights set over the gas pumps. Philip scanned the station workers, looking for the medium-sized African-American woman who’d pumped Genet’s gas. For investigative purposes, they were lucky that New Jersey still refused to allow self-serve islands. It meant that Genet had had to interact with someone.
He found the woman working the counter in the station’s convenience store. He waited until the crowd thinned out, approached her, and paid for a pack of Marlboro Reds. He pocketed the cigarettes and a pack of matches and took his change.
“So, I’m looking for a man,” he said to her.
“Ain’t we all, babe,” she said.
He smiled. “But I’m thinking you can help me.” He pulled out a wad of bills.
She frowned and drew him off to the side. “Hey, I ain’t getting involved in anything that requires a payoff. Out.” She pointed at the door.
Philip pointed to Gabe. “I’m helping out my cousin. Seems he picked up this hot guy yesterday. They had a good time then this fucker runs out with my
aunt’s car the morning after.”
She looked over at Gabe, who shuffled his feet, hunched his shoulders and looked at the floor. “Like I care. You could report that to the cops.”
“Yeah, then he’d be out of the closet with his mom. She’d fucking kill him.” Philip shook his head. “And I’d have to be the one to tell her. Not doing it. Not to mention I’d have to take the bum in to live at my place. Family.” He shrugged.
The woman laughed. “I hear that. So what do you want?”
“This guy might’ve filled up here. I just wanna know if he said anything about where he’s going.”
She shrugged. “Ain’t no guarantee I’m going to remember your guy. Lot of guys come through, lot of them are hot.”
“He’s really cute,” Gabe mumbled. “Blond curls.”
“Well, I might remember that,” the woman said.
Philip peeled off a hundred-dollar bill. “Help me out. This will be cheaper for me than putting my cousin up.” He jabbed his thumb at Gabe. “This guy came in about nine a.m. yesterday driving a BMW. Tall, blond, arrogant. Lots of curls, like he says.”
“I like curls,” Gabe said.
“Yeah, I like them too.” The woman snatched the hundred out of Philip’s hand. “I would’ve liked them on this guy too but they came with a lot of fucking attitude.” She nodded. “Your guy tried to get me to bring him a cup of coffee while I was filling him up. I told him get his own damn coffee, it’s my job to pump gas, not fetch for some jerk who won’t get out of the car. Asshole. He did get his own coffee eventually. After holding up the car behind him.”
“Yeah, that’s the arrogant son of a bitch,” Philip said. “He say anything you remember? Something that might help us find him?”
“Well…” She looked at the wad of money in his hand.
He gave her another hundred. Apparently, she’d get involved if someone pissed her off. “Did he pay with a credit card?”
“Nope, cash, but I got something better than a credit card number.” She grinned. “I thought, this guy needs a lesson in manners. I got a cousin too, only mine works for the state cops assigned to I-80. So I took down this asshole’s license plate and passed it on to my cousin when I saw the asshole heading out west on the highway.”
She had Genet’s license plate number? “You got him pulled over? Hah!” Philip smirked.
“I wish.” She sighed. “My cousin said he’d try but some idiot in a truck fishtailed and caused a damn mess on the highway and he had to work that instead of patrol.”
She gave him Genet’s plate number off the top of her head as she rambled about other rude customers. Philip pulled off another hundred as a reward. “Now we can track which way he went. This is really gonna save my cousin’s ass. And save me from a whole shitload of trouble.” He seized her shoulders and kissed her cheek. “Lady, you’re a freakin’ genius.”
“I know it,” she said, nodding and setting her hoop earrings bouncing. “I know it.” She looked at Gabe. “Hey, you ever want to play for the other team, I like ’em skinny.”
“She probably wouldn’t steal your car.” Philip nudged Gabe’s shoulder.
“Damn straight,” she said.
“Shut up, Phil,” Gabe said.
“Hey, I’m helping you, ain’t I?”
The woman glanced over at the counter and saw a customer waiting. “Good luck with finding the asshole. Give him one for me.” She shoved the money into the front pocket of her sweatshirt and went back to work.
Philip took one of the Marlboros out of his pocket and lit it as they walked to the car. He’d quit smoking because it was addictive and sometimes he was in a place where he couldn’t get any. It felt good to light up again after so long. It wasn’t like smoking would kill him. His lungs would self-repair.
Gabe stuffed his hands into his pockets as they walked back to the van. “I almost bought that act and I knew it was phony. Nice, Drake.”
“It’s Jersey. Two rules. Money talks and assholes are remembered.”
“A license plate number.” Gabe shook his head. “I’d never have figured we’d get that.”
“Boots on the ground.” Philip blew out smoke. “You never know until you get some boots on the ground.”
The Phoenix Institute itself is located in northwestern New Jersey, roughly in the Bergen County area but I hate to get more exact because then people will start telling me I’ve put it in the wrong place and that area isn’t properly zoned for a commercial use. Zoning is very important in New Jersey.
And because this is Jersey, I’ve been told that this street sign is stolen and must be replaced frequently.
Of course it is.