Seven up, p.1
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       Seven Up, p.1

         Part #7 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich  
Seven Up


  Stephanie Plum 7 - Seven Up

  Title

  Prologue

  FOR THE BETTER part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple—I wanted to be an intergalactic princess. I didn't care much about ruling hordes of space people. Mostly I wanted to wear the cape and the sexy boots and carry a cool weapon.

  As it happens, the princess thing didn't work out for me, so I went to college and when I graduated I went to work as a lingerie buyer for a chain store. Then that didn't work out, so I blackmailed my bail bondsman cousin into giving me a job as a bounty hunter. Funny how fate steps in. I never did get the cape or the sexy boots, but I do finally have a sort of cool weapon. Well okay, it's a little .38 and I keep it in my cookie jar, but it's still a weapon, right:?

  Back in the days when I was auditioning for princess I had the occasional run-in with the bad kid in the neighborhood. He was two years older than me. His name was Joe Morelli. And he was trouble.

  I'm still having those run-ins with Morelli. And he's still trouble . . . but now he's the kind of trouble a woman likes.

  He's a cop and his gun is bigger than mine and he doesn't keep it in a cookie jar.

  He proposed to me a couple weeks ago during a libido attack. He unsnapped my jeans, hooked a finger into the waistband, and pulled me to him. “About that proposal, Cupcake . . .” he said.

  “Which proposal are we talking about?”

  “The marriage proposal.”

  “Are you serious?”

  “I'm a desperate man.”

  That was obvious.

  Truth is, I was desperate, too. I was starting to have romantic thoughts about my electric toothbrush. Problem was, I just didn't know if I was ready for marriage. Marriage is scary stuff. You have to share a bathroom. What's with that? And what about fantasies? Suppose the intergalactic princess resurfaces and I need to set off on a mission?

  Morelli shook his head. “You're thinking again.”

  “There's a lot to consider.”

  “Let me hit the high points for you . . . wedding cake, oral sex, plus you can have my credit card.”

  “I like the wedding cake part.”

  “You like the other parts, too,” Morelli said.

  “I need time to think.”

  “Sure,” Morelli said, “take all the time you need. How about thinking upstairs in the bedroom.”

  His finger was still hooked into my jeans and it was getting warm down there. I inadvertently glanced at the stairs.

  Morelli grinned and pulled me closer. “Thinking about the wedding cake?”

  “No,” I said. “And I'm not thinking about the credit card, either.”

  Stephanie Plum 7 - Seven Up

  1

  I KNEW SOMETHING bad was going to happen when Vinnie called me into his private office. Vinnie is my boss and my cousin. I read on a bathroom stall door once that Vinnie humps like a ferret. I'm not sure what that means, but it seems reasonable since Vinnie looks like a ferret. His ruby pinky ring reminded me of treasures found in Seaside Park arcade claw-machines. He was wearing a black shirt and black tie, his receding black hair was slicked back, casino pit boss-style. His facial expression was tuned to not happy.

  I looked across the desk at him and tried not to grimace. “Now what?”

  “I got a job for you,” Vinnie said. “I want you to find that rat fink Eddie DeChooch, and I want you to drag his boney ass back here. He got tagged smuggling a truckload of bootleg cigarettes up from Virginia and he missed his court date.”

  I rolled my eyes so far into the top of my bead I could see hair growing. “I'm not going after Eddie DeChooch. He's old, and he kills people, and he's dating my grandmother.”

  “He hardly ever kills people anymore,” Vinnie said. “He has cataracts. Last time he tried to shoot someone he emptied a clip into an ironing board.”

  Vinnie owns and operates Vincent Plum Bail Bonds in Trenton, New Jersey. When someone is accused of a crime, Vinnie gives the court a cash bond, the court releases the accused until trial, and Vinnie hopes to God the accused shows up for court. If the accused decides to forgo the pleasure of his court date, Vinnie is out a lot of money unless I can find the accused and bring him back into the system. My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm a bond enforcement officer . . . aka bounty hunter. I took the job when times were lean and not even the fact that I graduated in the top ninety-eight percent of my college class could get me a better position. The economy has since improved, and there's no good reason why I'm still tracking down bad guys, except that it annoys my mother and I don't have to wear panty hose to work.

  “I'd give this to Ranger, but he's out of the country,” Vinnie said. “So that leaves you.”

  Ranger is a soldier-of-fortune kind of guy who sometimes works as a bounty hunter. He's very good . . . at everything. And he's scary as hell. “What's Ranger doing out of the country? And what do you mean by out of the country? Asia? South America? Miami?”

  “He's making a pickup for me in Puerto Rico.” Vinnie shoved a file folder across his desk. “Here's the bond agreement on DeChooch and your authorization to capture. He's worth fifty thousand to me . . . five thousand to you. Go over to DeChooch's house and find out why he pulled a no-show on his hearing yesterday. Connie called and there was no answer. Christ, he could be dead on his kitchen floor. Going out with your grandma's enough to kill anyone.”

  Vinnie's office is on Hamilton, which at first glance might not seem like the best location for a bail bonds office. Most bail bonds offices are across from the jail. The difference with Vinnie is that many of the people he bonds out are either relatives or neighbors and live just off Hamilton in the Burg. I grew up in the Burg and my parents still live there. It's really a very safe neighborhood, since Burg criminals are always careful to do their crimes elsewhere. Well, okay, Jimmy Curtains once walked Two Toes Garibaldi out of his house in his pajamas and drove him to the landfill . . . but still, the actual whacking didn't take place in the Burg. And the guys they found buried in the basement of the candy store on Ferris Street weren't from the Burg, so you can't really count them as a statistic.

  Connie Rosolli looked up when I came out of Vinnie's office. Connie is the office manager. Connie keeps things running while Vinnie is off springing miscreants and/or fornicating with barnyard animals.

  Connie had her hair teased up to about three times the size of her head. She was wearing a pink V-neck sweater that molded to boobs that belonged on a much larger woman and a short black knit skirt that would have fit a much smaller woman.

  Connie's been with Vinnie since he first started the business. She's stuck it out this long because she puts up with nothing and on exceptionally bad days she helps herself to combat pay from the petty cash.

  She did a face scrunch when she saw I had a file in my hand. “You aren't actually going out after Eddie DeChooch, are you?”

  “I'm hoping he's dead.”

  Lula was slouched on the faux leather couch that had been shoved against a wall and served as the holding pen for bondees and their unfortunate relatives. Lula and the couch were almost identical shades of brown, with the exception of Lula's hair, which happened to be cherry red today.

  I always feel sort of anemic when I stand next to Lula. I'm a third-generation American of Italian-Hungarian heritage. I have my mother's pale skin and blue eyes and good metabolism, which allows me to eat birthday cake and still (almost always) button the top snap on my Levi's. From my father's side of the family I've inherited a lot of unmanageable brown hair and a penchant for Italian hand gestures. On my own, on a good day with a ton of mascara and four-inch heels, I can attract some attention. Next to Lula I'm wallpaper.

  “I'd offer to help drag his behind back to jail,” Lula said. “You could probably use the help of a plus-size woman like me. But it's too bad I don't like when they're dead. Dead creeps me out.”

  “Well, I don't actually know if he's dead,” I said.

  “Good enough for me,” Lula said. “Sign me up. If he's alive I get to kick some sorry-ass butt, and if he's dead . . . I'm outta there.”

  Lula talks tough, but the truth is we're both pretty wimpy when it comes to actual butt kicking. Lula was a ho in a former life and is now doing filing for Vinnie. Lula was as good at ho'ing as she is at filing . . . and she's not much good at filing.

  “Maybe we should wear vests,” I said.

  Lula took her purse from a bottom file drawer. “Suit yourself, but I'm not wearing no Kevlar vest. We don't got one big enough and besides it'd ruin my fashion statement.”

  I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and didn't have much of a fashion statement to make, so I took a vest from the back room.

  “Hold on,” Lula said when we got to the curb, “what's this?”

  “I bought a new car.”

  “Well dang, girl, you did good. This here's an excellent car.”

  It was a black Honda CR-V, and the payments were killing me. I'd had to make a choice between eating and looking cool. And looking cool had won out. Well hell, there's a price for everything, right?

  “Where we going?” Lula asked, settling in next to me. “Where's this dude live?”

  “We're going to the Burg. Eddie DeChooch lives three blocks from my parents' house.”

  “He really dating your grandma?”

  “She ran into him at a viewing two weeks ago at Stiva's Funeral Home, and they went out for pizza after.”

  “Think they did the nasty?”

  I almost ran the car up on the sidewalk. “No! Yuck!”

  “Just asking,” Lula said.

  DeChooch lives in a small brick duplex. Seventy-something Angela Marguchi and her ninety-something mother live in one half of the house, and DeChooch lives in the other. I parked in front of the DeChooch half, and Lula and I walked to the door. I was wearing the vest, and Lula was wearing a stretchy animal-print top and yellow stretch pants. Lula is a big woman and tends to test the limits of Lycra.

  “You go ahead and see if he's dead,” Lula said. “And then if it turns out he's not dead, you let me know and I'll come kick his ass.”

  “Yeah, right.”

  “Hunh,” she said, lower lip stuck out. “You think I couldn't kick his ass?”

  “You might want to stand to the side of the door,” I said. “Just in case.”

  “Good idea,” Lula said, stepping aside. “I'm not afraid or anything, but I'd hate to get bloodstains on this top.”

  I rang the bell and waited for an answer. I rang a second time. “Mr. DeChooch?” I yelled.

  Angela Marguchi stuck her head out her door. She was half a foot shorter than me, white-haired and bird-boned, a cigarette rammed between thin lips, eyes narrowed from smoke and age. “What's all this racket?”

  “I'm looking for Eddie.”

  She looked more closely and her mood brightened when she recognized me. “Stephanie Plum. Goodness, haven't seen you in a while. I heard you were pregnant by that vice cop, Joe Morelli.”

  “A vicious rumor.”

  “What about DeChooch,” Lula asked Angela. “He been around?”

  “He's in his house,” Angela said. “He never goes anywhere anymore. He's depressed. Won't talk or nothing.”

  “He's not answering his door.”

  “He don't answer his phone, either. Just go in. He leaves the door unlocked. Says he's waiting for someone to come shoot him and put him out of his misery.”

  “Well, that isn't us,” Lula said. “ 'Course if he was willing to pay for it I might know someone . . .”

  I carefully opened Eddie's door and stepped into the foyer. “Mr. DeChooch?”

  “Go away.”

  The voice came from the living room to my right. The shades were drawn and the room was dark. I squinted in the direction of the voice.

  “It's Stephanie Plum, Mr. DeChooch. You missed your court date. Vinnie is worried about you.”

  “I'm not going to court,” DeChooch said. “I'm not going anywhere.”

  I moved farther into the room and spotted him sitting in a chair in the corner. He was a wiry little guy with white rumpled hair. He was wearing an undershirt and boxer shorts and black socks with black shoes.

  “What's with the shoes?” Lula asked.

  DeChooch looked down. “My feet got cold.”

  “How about if you finish getting dressed and we take you to reschedule,” I said.

  “What are you, hard of hearing? I told you, I'm not going anywhere. Look at me. I'm in a depression.”

  “Maybe you're in a depression on account of yon haven't got any pants on,” Lula said. “Sure would make me feel happier if I didn't have to worry about seeing your Mr. Geezer hanging out of your boxer shorts.”

  “You don't know nothing,” DeChooch said. “You don't know what it's like to be old and not to be able to do anything right anymore.”

  “Yeah, I wouldn't know about that,” Lula said.

  What Lula and I knew about was being young and not doing anything right. Lula and I never did anything right.

  “What's that you're wearing?” DeChooch asked me. “Christ, is that a bulletproof vest? See, now that's so fucking insulting. That's like saying I'm not smart enough to shoot you in the head.”

  “She just figured since you took out that ironing board it wouldn't hurt to be careful,” Lula said.

  “The ironing board! That's all I hear about. A man makes one mistake and that's all anybody ever talks about.” He made a dismissive hand gesture. “Ah hell, who am I trying to kid. I'm a has-been. You know what I got arrested for? I got arrested for smuggling cigarettes up from Virginia. I can't even smuggle cigarettes anymore.” He hung his head. “I'm a loser. A fuckin' loser. I should shoot myself.”

  “Maybe you just had some bad luck,” Lula said. “I bet next time you try to smuggle something it works out fine.”

  “I got a bum prostate,” DeChooch said. “I had to stop to take a leak. That's where they caught me . . . at the rest stop.”

  “Don't seem fair,” Lula said.

  “Life isn't fair. There isn't nothing fair about life. All my life I've worked hard and I've had all these . . . achievements. And now I'm old and what happens? I get arrested taking a leak. It's goddamn embarrassing.”

  His house was decorated with no special style in mind. Probably it had been furnished over the years with whatever fell off the truck. There was no Mrs. DeChooch. She'd passed away years ago. So far as I knew there'd never been any little DeChooches.

  “Maybe you should get dressed,” I said.“We really need to go downtown.”

  “Why not,” DeChooch said. “Don't make no difference where I sit. Could just as well be downtown as here.” He stood, gave a dejected sigh, and shuffled stoop-shouldered to the stairs. He turned and looked at us. “Give me a minute.”

  The house was a lot like my parents' house. Living room in front, dining room in the middle, and kitchen overlooking a narrow backyard. Upstairs there'd be three small bedrooms and a bathroom.

  Lula and I sat in the stillness and darkness, listening to DeChooch walking around above us in his bedroom.

  “He should have smuggled Prozac instead of cigarettes,” Lula said. “He could have popped a few.”

  “What he should do is get his eyes fixed,” I said. “My Aunt Rose was operated on for cataracts and now she can see again.”

  “Yeah, if he got his eyes fixed he could probably shoot a lot more people. I bet that'd cheer him up.”

  Okay, maybe he shouldn't get his eyes fixed.

  Lula looked toward the stairs. “What's he doing tip there? How long does it take to put a pair of pants on?”

  “Maybe he can't find them.”

  “You think he's that blind?”

  I shrugged.

  “Come to think of it, I don't hear him moving around,” Lula said. “Maybe he fell asleep. Old people do that a lot.”

  I went to the stairs and yelled up at DeChooch. “Mr. DeChooch? Are you okay?”

  No answer.

  I yelled again.

  “Oh boy,” Lula said.

  I took the stairs two at a tine. DeChooch's bedroom door was closed, so I rapped on it hard. “Mr. DeChooch?”

  Still no answer.

  I opened the door and looked inside. Empty. The bathroom was empty and the other two bedrooms were empty. No DeChooch.

 
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