Visions of sugar plums, p.1
Visions of Sugar Plums, p.1Janet Evanovich
Visions of Sugar Plums
MY NAME IS STEPHANIE PLUM AND I've got a strange man in my kitchen. He appeared out of nowhere. One minute I was sipping coffee, mentally planning out my day. And then the next minute... poof, there he was.
He was over six feet, with wavy blond hair pulled into a ponytail, deep-set brown eyes, and an athlete's body. He looked to be late twenties, maybe thirty. He was dressed in jeans, boots, a grungy white thermal shirt hanging loose over the jeans, and a beat-up black leather jacket hanging on broad shoulders. He was sporting two days of beard growth, and he didn't look happy.
"Well, isn't this perfect," he said, clearly disgusted, hands on hips, taking me in. My heart was tap-dancing in my chest. I was at a total loss. I didn't know what to think or what to say. I didn't know who he was or how he got into my kitchen. He was frightening, but even more than that he had me flustered. It was like going to a birthday party and arriving a day early. It was like... what the heck's going on?
"How?" I asked. "What?"
"Hey, don't ask me, lady," he said. "I'm as surprised as you are."
"How'd you get into my apartment?"
"Sweet cakes, you wouldn't believe me if I told you." He moved to the refrigerator, opened the door, and helped himself to a beer. He cracked the beer open, took a long pull, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You know how people get beamed down on Star Trek? It's sort of like that."
Okay, so I've got a big slob of a guy drinking beer in my kitchen, and I think he might be crazy. The only other possibility I can come up with is that I'm hallucinating and he isn't real. I smoked some pot in college but that was about it. Don't think I'd get a flashback from wacky tobacky. There were mushrooms on the pizza last night. Could that be it?
Fortunately, I work in bail bond enforcement, and I'm sort of used to scary guys showing up in closets and under beds. I inched my way across the kitchen, stuck my hand into my brown bear cookie jar, and pulled out my .38 five-shot Smith & Wesson.
"Cripes," he said, "what are you gonna do, shoot me? Like that would change anything." He looked more closely at the gun and shook his head in another wave of disgust. "Honey, there aren't any bullets in that gun."
"There might be one," I said. "I might have one chambered."
"Yeah, right." He finished the beer and sauntered out of the kitchen, into the living room. He looked around and moved to the bedroom.
"Hey," I yelled. "Where do you think you're going?"
He didn't stop.
"That's it," I told him. "I'm calling the police."
"Give me a break," he said. "I'm having a really shitty day." He kicked his boots off and flopped onto my bed, scoping out the room from his prone position. "Where's the television?"
"In the living room."
"Oh man, you don't even have a television in your bedroom. How crapola is this?"
I cautiously moved closer to the bed, and I reached out and touched him.
"Yeah, I'm real," he said. "Sort of. And all my equipment works." He smiled for the first time. It was a knock-your-socks-off smile. Dazzling white teeth and good-humored eyes that crinkled at the corners. "In case you're interested."
The smile was good. The news was bad. I didn't know what sort of real meant. And I wasn't sure I liked the idea that his equipment worked. All in all, it didn't do a lot to help my heart rate. Truth is, I'm pretty much a chicken-shit bounty hunter. Still, while I'm not the world's bravest person, I can bluff with the best of them, so I did an eye roll. "Get a grip."
"You'll come around," he said. "They always do."
"Women. Women love me," he said.
Good thing I didn't have a bullet chambered as threatened because I'd definitely shoot this guy. "Do you have a name?"
"Is that your first name or your last name?"
"That's my whole name. Who are you?"
"You live here alone?"
"That's a big fib," he said. "You have living alone written all over you."
I narrowed my eyes. "Excuse me?"
"You're not exactly a sex goddess," he said. "Hair from hell. Baggy sweatpants. No makeup. Lousy personality. Not that there isn't some potential. You have an okay shape. What are you, 34B? And you've got a good mouth. Nice pouty lips." He threw me another smile. "A guy could get ideas looking at those lips."
Great. The nutcase who somehow got into my apartment was getting ideas about my lips. Thoughts of serial rapists and sex killings went racing through my mind. My mother's warnings echoed in my ears. Watch out for strangers. Keep your door locked. Yes, but it's not my fault, I reasoned. My door was locked. What's with that?
I took his boots, carried them to the front door, and threw them into the hall. "Your boots are in the hall," I yelled. "If you don't come get them, I'm pitching them down the trash chute."
My neighbor, Mr. Wolesky, stepped out of the elevator. He was holding a small white bakery bag in his hand. "Look at this," he said, "I'm starting the day with a doughnut. That's what Christmas does to me. It makes me crazy and then I need a doughnut. Four days to Christmas and the stores are picked clean," he said. "And they all say everything's on sale but I know they jack up the prices. They always gotta gouge you at Christmas. There should be a law. Somebody should look into it."
Mr. Wolesky unlocked his door, lurched inside, and slammed the door after himself. The door lock clicked into place, and I heard Mr. Wolesky's television go on.
Diesel elbowed me aside, went into the hall, and retrieved his boots. "You know, you have a real attitude problem," he said.
"Attitude this," I told him, closing my door, locking him out of the apartment.
The bolt shot back, the lock tumbled, and Diesel opened the door, walked to the couch, and sat down to put his boots on.
Hard to pick an emotion here. Confused and astounded would be high on the list. Scared bonkers wasn't far behind. "How'd you do that?" I said, squeaky-voiced and breathless. "How'd you unlock my door?"
"I don't know. It's just one of those things we can do."
Goosebumps prickled on my forearms. "Now I'm really creeped out."
"Relax. I'm not going to hurt you. Hell, I'm supposed to make your life better." He gave a snort and another bark of laughter at that. "Yeah, right," he said.
Deep breath, Stephanie. Not a terrific time to hyperventilate. If I passed out from lack of oxygen God knows what would happen. Suppose he was from outer space, and he conducted an anal probe while I was unconscious? A shiver ripped through me. Yuk! "What are we looking at here?" I asked him. "Ghost? Vampire? Space alien?"
He slouched back onto the couch and zapped the television on. "You're in the ballpark."
I was at a loss. How do you get rid of someone who can unlock locks? You can't even have him arrested by the police. And even if I decided to call the police, what would I say? I have a sort-of-real guy in my apartment?
"Suppose I cuffed you and chained you to something. What then?"
He was channel surfing, concentrating on the television. "I could get loose."
"Suppose I shot you?"
"I'd be pissed off. And it's not smart to piss me off."
"But could I kill you? Could I hurt you?"
"What is this, twenty questions? I'm looking for a game here. What time is it, anyway? And where am I?"
"You're in Trenton, New Jersey. It's eight o'clock in the morning. And you didn't answer my question."
He flipped the television off. "Crud. Trenton. I should have guessed. Eight in the morning. I have a whole day to look forward to. Wonderful. And the answer to
I went to the kitchen and phoned my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Karwatt. "I was wondering if you could come over for just a second," I said. "There's something I'd like to show you." A moment later, I ushered Mrs. Karwatt into my living room. "What do you see?" I asked her. "Is there anyone sitting on my couch?"
"There's a man on your couch," Mrs. Karwatt said. "He's big, and he has a blond ponytail. Is that the right answer?"
"Just checking," I said to Mrs. Karwatt. "Thanks."
Mrs. Karwatt left but Diesel remained.
"She could see you," I said to him.
He'd been in my apartment for almost a half hour now, and he hadn't done a full head rotation or tried to wrestle me down to the ground. That was a good sign, right? My mother's voice returned. It means nothing. Don't let your guard down. He could be a maniac! Problem was, the maniac thoughts were banging up against a gut feeling that he was an okay guy. Pushy and arrogant and generally obnoxious, but not criminally insane. Of course, it's possible my instincts were swayed by the fact that he was incredibly sexy-looking. And he smelled wonderful.
"What are you doing here?" I asked him, curiosity beginning to override panic.
He stood and stretched and scratched his stomach. "How about if I'm the friggin' Spirit of Christmas."
My mouth dropped open. The friggin' Spirit of Christmas. I must be dreaming. Probably I dreamed I called Mrs. Karwatt, too. The friggin' Spirit of Christmas. That's actually pretty funny. "Here's the thing," I said to him. "I have enough Christmas spirit. I don't need you."
"Not my call, Gracie. Personally, I hate Christmas. And I'd prefer to be sitting under a palm tree right now, but hey, here I am. So let's get on with it."
"My name's not Gracie."
"Whatever." He looked around. "Where's your tree? You're supposed to have a stupid Christmas tree."
"I haven't had time to buy a tree. There's this guy I'm trying to find. Sandy Claws. He's wanted for burglary, and now he's failed to appear for his court appearance, so he's in violation of his bond agreement."
"Hah! Good one. That's a prizewinning excuse for not having a Christmas tree. Let me see if I've got the details right. You're a bounty hunter?"
"You don't look like a bounty hunter."
"What's a bounty hunter supposed to look like?"
"Dressed in black, six-shooter strapped to your leg, a cheroot clenched between your teeth."
I did another eye roll.
"And you're after Santa Claus because he skipped."
"Not Santa Claus," I said. "Sandy Claws. S-a-n-d-y C-l-a-w-s."
"Sandy Claws. Cripes, how would you like to have that name? What'd he steal, kitty litter?"
This was coming from a guy named for a train engine. "First, I have a legitimate job. I work for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds as a bond enforcement agent. Second, Claws isn't such a weird name. It was probably Klaus and got screwed up at Ellis Island. It happened a lot. Third, I don't know why I'm explaining this to you. Probably I had a stroke and fell down and hit my head and I'm actually in ICU right now, hallucinating all this."
"You see, this is typical of the problem. Nobody believes in the mystical anymore. Nobody believes in miracles. As it happens, I'm a little supernatural. Why can't you just accept that and go with it? I bet you don't believe in Santa Claus either. Maybe Sandy Claws didn't have his name changed from Klaus. Maybe he had his name changed from Santa Claus. Maybe the old guy got tired of the toys-for-kids routine and just wanted to go hide out somewhere."
"So you think Santa Claus might be living in Trenton under an assumed name?"
Diesel shrugged. "It's possible. Santa's a pretty shifty guy. He has a dark side, you know."
"I didn't know that."
"Not many people know that. So if you could catch this Claws guy, you'd get a Christmas tree?"
"Probably not. I haven't got money for a tree. And I haven't got any ornaments."
"Oh man, I'm stuck with a whiner. No time, no money, no ornaments. Yada, yada, yada."
"Hey, it's my life and I don't have to have a Christmas tree if I don't want one."
Actually, I really did want a Christmas tree. I wanted a big fat tree with bright colored lights and an angel on top. I wanted a wreath on my front door. I wanted red candlesticks on my dining room table. I wanted my closet filled with beautifully wrapped presents for my family. I wanted Christmas music playing on my stereo. And I wanted a fruitcake in my refrigerator. It was what every red-blooded Plum was supposed to have at Christmas, right?
I wanted to wake up in the morning and feel happy and filled with good cheer and peace on earth and good will toward men. And I wanted to have a partridge in my pear tree.
Well, guess what? I didn't have any of those things. No tree, no wreath, no candlesticks, no presents, no freaking fruitcake, and no goddamn partridge.
Every year I chased after the perfect Christmas and every year Christmas barely happened. My Christmases were always a mess of badly wrapped last-minute presents, a chunk of fruitcake sent home in a doggy bag from my parents' house, and for the last couple years I haven't had a tree. I just couldn't seem to get to Christmas.
"What do you mean, you don't want a Christmas tree?" Diesel said. "Everyone wants a Christmas tree. If you had a Christmas tree, Santa would bring you stuff... like hair curlers and slut shoes."
A sigh escaped. "I appreciate your insight into Christmas, but you're going to have to leave now. I have things to do. I have to work on the Claws case and then later I promised my mother I'd be over to bake Christmas cookies."
"Not a good plan. Baking cookies doesn't do a lot for me. I have a better plan. How about we find Claws and then we shop for a tree? And on the way home from the tree shopping we can see if the Titans are playing tonight. Maybe we can catch a hockey game."
"How do you know about the Titans?"
"I know everything."
I did yet another eye roll and brushed past him. I was doing so many eye rolls, they were giving me a headache.
"Okay, so I've been to Trenton before," he said. "You've got to stop doing those eye rolls. You're going to shake something loose in there."
I'd planned to take a shower, but there was no way I was getting into the shower with a strange man sitting in my living room. "I'm changing my clothes, and then I'm going to work. You aren't going to pop into my bedroom, are you?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Your loss." He returned to the couch and television. "Let me know if you change your mind."
An hour later we were in my Honda CRV. Me and Supernatural Man. I hadn't invited him to ride along with me. He'd simply unlocked the door and gotten into the car.
"Admit it, you're getting to like me, right?" he asked.
"Wrong, I don't like you. But, for some unfathomable reason, I'm not totally freaked out."
"It's because I'm charming."
"You are not charming. You're a jerk."
He flashed another one of the killer smiles at me. "Yeah, but I'm a charming jerk."
I was driving and Diesel was riding shotgun, flipping through my folder on Claws. "So what do we do here, go to his house and drag him out?"
"He's living with his sister, Elaine Gluck. I stopped by their house yesterday, and his sister said he'd disappeared. I think she knows where he is so I'm going back today to put some pressure on her."
"Seventy-six years old, and this guy broke into Kreider's Hardware at two in the morning and stole fifteen hundred dollars worth of power tools and a gallon of Morning Glory yellow paint," Diesel read. "Got caught on a security camera. What an idiot. Everybody knows you've got to wear a ski mask when you pull a job like that. Doesn't he watch television? Doesn't he go to the movies?" Diesel pulled out a file photo. "Hold the phone. Is this the guy?"
"Are you any good at what you do? Are you good at tracking down people?"
"No. But I'm lucky."
"Even better," he said.
"You look like you've had a revelation."
"Big time. The pieces are beginning to fit together."
"Sorry," he said. "It was one of those personal revelations."
* * *
Sandy Claws and his sister, Elaine Gluck, lived in North Trenton in a neighborhood of small houses, big televisions, and American-made cars. Holiday spirit ran high in Sandy's neighborhood. Porches were trimmed in colored lights. Electric candles glowed in windows. Postage-stamp front yards were crammed with reindeer, Frosties, and Santas. Sandy Claws' house was the best, or the worst, depending on your point of view. The house was blanketed in red, green, yellow, and blue Christmas lights, interspersed with waterfalls of tiny white twinkle lights. A lighted sign on the roof blinked the message PEACE ON EARTH. A large plastic Santa and his sleigh were stuffed into the minuscule front yard. And three plastic, five-foot-tall Dickens-era carolers huddled together on the front porch.
"Now this is spirit," Diesel said. "Nice touch with the blinking lights on the roof."
"At the risk of being cynical, probably he stole the lights."
"Not my problem," Diesel said, opening the car door.
"Hold it. Close the door," I said. "You stay here while I talk to Elaine."
"And miss out on all the fun? No way." He angled out of the CRV, and he stood, hands in pockets, on the sidewalk, waiting for me.
"Okay. Fine. Just don't say anything. Just stand behind me and try to look respectable."
"You think I don't look respectable?"
"You have gravy stains on your shirt."
He looked down at himself. "This is my favorite shirt. It's real comfy. And they're not gravy stains. They're grease stains. I used to work on my bike in this shirt."
"What kind of bike?"
"Customized Harley. I had a big old cruiser with Python pipes." He smiled, remembering. "It was sweet."
Visions of Sugar Plums by Janet Evanovich / Mystery & Detective / Humor / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes