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One for the money, p.10
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       One for the Money, p.10

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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“Nobody has a key!”

  “I'm sure you'll think of something,” Morelli said. “Call the police. Call the fire department. Call the fucking Marines.”

  “I'm naked!”

  He smiled and winked and walked out the door.

  I heard the front door to my apartment close and lock. I didn't expect an answer, but I felt compelled to call out to Morelli as a test. I waited a few moments, holding my breath, listening to the silence. Morelli seemed to be gone. My fingers curled tighter around the phone. God help the phone company if they'd reneged on their promise to resume my service. I climbed onto the edge of the tub to bring myself up to the height of my secured hand. I carefully extended the antenna, pushed the on button, and put my ear to the handset. The dial tone sang out loud and clear. I was so relieved I almost burst into tears.

  Now I was faced with a new problem. Who to call? The police and the fire company were out. They'd roar into my parking lot with their lights flashing, and by the time they got to my door, forty senior citizens would be standing in my hall in their jammies, waiting to see what all the excitement was about, waiting for an explanation.

  I'd come to realize there were certain peculiarities about the seniors in my building. They were vicious when it came to parking, and they had a fascination for emergencies that bordered on the ghoulish. At the first hint of a flashing light, every senior in my building had their nose pressed to the window glass.

  I also could do without four or five of the city's finest leering at me chained naked to my shower curtain rod.

  If I called my mother, I'd have to move out of state because she'd never let up. And besides, she'd send my father, and then my father would see me naked. Being naked and handcuffed in front of my father wasn't something I could visualize.

  If I called my sister, she'd call my mother.

  I'd hang here and rot before I'd call my ex-husband.

  To make it even more complicated, whoever came to rescue me was either going to have to climb the fire escape or jimmy the front door. I could only come up with one name. I squeezed my eyes shut. “Shit.” I was going to have to call Ranger. I took a deep breath and tapped out his number, praying I'd remembered it correctly.

  It took only one ring for him to pick up. “Yo.”

  “Ranger?”

  “Who wants to know?”

  “Stephanie Plum. I have a problem.”

  There was a pause two beats long, and I could imagine him coming alert, sitting up in bed. “What's the problem?”

  I rolled my eyes, only half believing I was making this phone call. “I'm handcuffed to my shower curtain rod, and I need someone to open the cuffs.”

  Another pause and he disconnected.

  I redialed, punching the buttons so hard I almost broke a finger.

  “Yo!” Ranger said, sounding good and pissed off.

  “Don't hang up! This is serious, dammit. I'm trapped in my bathroom. My front door is locked and no one has a key.”

  “Why don't you call the cops? They love this rescue shit.”

  “Because I don't want to have to explain to the cops. And besides, I'm naked.”

  “Heh, heh, heh.”

  “It's not funny. Morelli broke into my apartment while I was in the shower, and the son of a bitch handcuffed me to the shower rod.”

  “You gotta like the guy.”

  “Are you going to help me, or what?”

  “Where do you live?”

  “The apartment building at the corner of St. James and Dunworth. Apartment 215. It's a rear apartment. Morelli got in by climbing the fire escape and going through the window. You can probably do the same.”

  I couldn't actually blame Morelli for cuffing me to the curtain rod. After all, I had sort of stolen his car. And I could understand that he needed to keep me out of the way while he searched my apartment. I might even be able to forgive him for destroying my shower curtain in a show of macho force, but he went too far when he left me hanging here naked. If he thought this would discourage me, he was wrong. This whole deal was now in the ballpark of double-dare, and childish as it might be, I was not going to walk away from the challenge. I'd get Morelli or die trying.

  I'd been standing in the tub for what seemed like hours when I heard my front door open and close. The steam from the shower had long ago dissipated and the air had turned cool. My hand was numb from being held overhead. I was exhausted and hungry and had the beginnings of a headache.

  Ranger appeared in the bathroom doorway, and I was too relieved to be embarrassed. “I appreciate your coming out in the middle of the night,” I said.

  Ranger smiled. “Didn't want to miss seeing you chained up naked.”

  “The keys are in the mess on the floor.”

  He found the keys, pried the phone loose from my fingers, and unlocked the cuffs. “You and Morelli got something kinky going on?”

  “Remember when you gave me his keys this afternoon?”

  “Un huh.”

  “I sort of borrowed his car.”

  “Borrowed?”

  “Commandeered, actually. You know, about us having the law and all?”

  “Un huh.”

  “Well, I commandeered his car, and he found out.”

  Ranger smiled and handed me a towel. “He understand about commandeering?”

  “Let's just say he wasn't pleased. Anyway, I parked the car in the lot out here and removed the distributor cap as a safety precaution.”

  “Bet that went over big.”

  I got out of the tub and had to squelch a scream when I saw my reflection in the vanity mirror. My hair looked like it had taken 2,000 volts and been spray starched. “I need to install an alarm system in his car, but I haven't got the money.”

  Ranger laughed soft and low in his chest. “An alarm system. Morelli'll love that.” He took a pen from the floor and wrote an address on a piece of toilet paper. “I know a garage that'll give you a price.”

  I padded past him into the bedroom and exchanged the towel for a long terrycloth robe. “I heard you come in through the door.”

  “Picked the lock. Didn't think it prudent to wake up the super.” He looked over at my window. Rain was spattering on the dark pane, and a piece of torn screening draped over the sill. “I only do the Spiderman shit in nice weather.”

  “Morelli wrecked my screen.”

  “Guess he in a hurry.”

  “I've noticed you only talk ghetto half of the time.”

  “I'm multi-lingual,” Ranger said.

  I followed him to the door, feeling jealous, wishing I knew a second language.

  * * * * *

  MY SLEEP WAS DEEP AND DREAMLESS, and I might have slept until November if it weren't for the relentless pounding on my front door. I squinted at my beside clock. The display read 8:35. Used to be I loved company. Now I cringed when someone knocked on my door. My first fear was of Ramirez. My second was that the police had come to haul me away for auto theft.

  I picked the Sure Guard off my night table, stuffed my arms into my robe, and dragged myself to the door. I closed one eye and looked through the peephole with the other. Eddie Gazarra looked back at me. He was in uniform, holding two Dunkin' Donuts bags. I opened the door and sniffed the air like a hound on a scent. “Yum,” I breathed.

  “Hello to you, too,” Gazarra said, squeezing past me in the little hallway, heading for the dining room table. “Where's your furniture?”

  “I'm remodeling.”

  “Un huh.”

  We sat opposite each other, and I waited while he took two cardboard cups of coffee out of one of the bags. We uncapped the coffee, spread napkins, and dug into the donuts.

  We were good enough friends that we didn't have to talk while we ate. We ate the Boston creams first. Then we divided up the remaining four jelly donuts. At two donuts down he still hadn't noticed my hair, and I was left to wonder what my hair usually looked like. He also hadn't said anything about the mess Morelli had created while searching my apartment, w
hich gave me pause to consider my housekeeping habits.

  He ate his third donut more slowly, sipping his coffee, savoring his donut, sipping his coffee, savoring his donut. “I hear you made a recovery yesterday,” he said between savors.

  He was left with just his coffee. He eyed my donut, and I protectively drew it closer to my edge of the table.

  “Don't suppose you'd want to share that,” Gazarra said.

  “Don't suppose I would,” I replied. “How did you find out about my recovery?”

  “Locker room talk. You're prime conversation these days. The boys have a pool going on when you'll get boinked by Morelli.”

  My heart contracted so hard I was afraid my eyeballs might pop out of my head. I stared at Gazarra for a full minute, waiting for my blood pressure to ease out of the red zone, imagining capillaries bursting throughout my body.

  “How will they know when I'm boinked?” I asked through clenched teeth. “Maybe he's boinked me already. Maybe we do it twice a day.”

  “They figure you'll quit the case when you get boinked. The winning time is actually when you quit the case.”

  “You in the pool?”

  “Nope. Morelli nailed you when you were in high school. I don't think you'd let a second boinking go to your head.”

  “How do you know about high school?”

  “Everybody knows about high school.”

  “Jesus.” I swallowed the last piece of my last donut and washed it down with coffee.

  Eddie sighed as he watched all hope for a part of the donut disappear into my mouth. “Your cousin, the queen of nags, has me on a diet,” he said. “For breakfast I got decaf coffee, half a cup of cardboard cereal in skim milk, and a half grapefruit.”

  “I take it that's not cop food.”

  “Suppose I got shot,” Eddie said, “and all I had in me was decaf and half a grapefruit. You think that'd get me to the trauma unit?”

  “Not like real coffee and donuts.”

  “Damn straight.”

  “That overhang on your gun belt is probably good for stopping bullets, too.”

  Eddie drained his coffee cup, snapped the lid back on, and dumped it into the empty bag. “You wouldn't've said that if you weren't still pissed at the boinking stuff.”

  I agreed. “It was cruel.”

  He took a napkin and expertly flicked powdered sugar off his blue shirt. One of the many skills he'd learned at the academy, I thought. He sat back, arms folded across his chest. He was 5' 10" and stocky. His features were eastern Slavic with flat pale blue eyes, white blond hair, and a stubby nose. When we were kids he lived two houses down from me. His parents still live there. All his life he'd wanted to be a cop. Now that he was a uniform he had no desire to go further. He enjoyed driving the car, responding to emergencies, being first on the scene. He was good at comforting people. Everyone liked him, with the possible exception of his wife.

  “I've got some information for you,” Eddie said. “I went to Pino's last night for a beer, and Gus Dembrowski was there. Gus is the PC working the Kulesza case.”

  “PC?”

  “Plainclothesman.”

  This brought me up straight in my seat. “Did he tell you anything more about Morelli?”

  “He confirmed that Sanchez was an informant. Dembrowski let it slip that Morelli had a card on her. Informants are kept secret. The controlling supervisor keeps all the cards in a locked file. I guess in this case it was released as necessary information to the investigation.”

  “So maybe this is more complicated than it would first appear. Maybe the killing tied in to something Morelli had been working on.”

  “Could be. Could also be that Morelli had romantic interests in Sanchez. I understand she was young and pretty. Very Latino.”

  “And she's still missing.”

  “Yeah. She's still missing. The department's traced back to relatives in Staten Island and nobody's seen her.”

  “I talked to her neighbors yesterday, and it turns out one of the tenants who remembered seeing Morelli's alleged witness has suffered sudden death.”

  “What kind of sudden death?”

  “Hit and run in front of the building.”

  “Could have been an accident.”

  “I'd like to think so.”

  He glanced at his watch and stood. “I gotta go.”

  “One last thing, do you know Mooch Morelli?”

  “I see him around.”

  “You know what he does or where he lives?”

  “Works for public health. Some kind of inspector. Lives in Hamilton Township somewhere. Connie'll have cross-street reference books at the office. If he has a phone, you'll be able to get a street address.”

  “Thanks. And thanks for the donuts and coffee.”

  He paused in the hallway. “You need money?”

  I shook my head. “I'm doing okay.”

  He gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and he left.

  I closed the door after him and felt tears pool behind my eyes. Sometimes friendship chokes me up. I padded back to the dining room, gathered together the bags and napkins, and carted them off to the kitchen wastebasket. This was the first opportunity I'd had to actually take stock of my apartment. Morelli'd obviously gone through it in a snit, venting his frustration by making the worst possible mess. Kitchen cupboards were open, contents partially strewn on the counter and floor, books had been knocked from the bookcase, the cushion had been removed from my one remaining chair, the bedroom was cluttered with clothes pulled from drawers. I replaced the cushion and put the kitchen in order, deciding the rest of the apartment could wait.

  I showered and dressed in black spandex shorts and an oversized khaki T-shirt. My bounty hunter paraphernalia was still scattered over the bathroom floor. I stuffed it back into my black leather bag and slung the bag over my shoulder. I checked all the windows to make sure they were locked. This would become a morning and evening ritual. I hated living like a caged animal, but I didn't want any more surprise visitors. Locking my front door seemed more a matter of formality than security. Ranger had picked the lock with little difficulty. Of course, not everyone had Ranger's skills. Still, it wouldn't hurt to add another dead bolt to my collection of locking devices. First chance I got I'd talk to the super.

  I said good-by to Rex, dredged up some courage, and poked my head into the hall before venturing farther, making certain Ramirez hadn't suddenly appeared.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  7

  THE DISTRIBUTOR CAP WAS JUST WHERE I'D LEFT IT, under a bush, tucked in close to the building. I put it back where it belonged and pulled out of the lot, heading for Hamilton. I found a spot in front of Vinnie's office and managed to wedge the Cherokee into it on the third try.

  Connie was at her desk, peering into a hand mirror, picking clumps of dried goo off the tips of heavily mascaraed lashes.

  She looked up when she saw me. “You ever use this lash lengthener stuff?” she asked. “Looks like it's laced with rat hairs.”

  I waved the police receipt at her. “I got Clarence.”

  She made a fist and jerked her elbow back hard. “Yes!”

  “Vinnie here?”

  “Had to go to the dentist. Having his incisors sharpened, I think.” She pulled her master copy of the file and took my receipt. “We don't need Vinnie to do this. I can write you a check.” She made a notation on the file cover, and placed the file in a bin on the far corner of her desk. She took a ledger-style checkbook from her middle drawer and wrote out a check. “How's it going with Morelli? You able to get a fix on him?”

  “Not exactly a fix, but I know he's still in town.”

  “He's a serious babe,” Connie said. “Saw him six months ago, before all this happened. He was ordering a quarter pound of provolone at the meat market, and I had all I could do to keep from sinking my teeth into his butt.”

  “Sounds carnivorous.”

  “Carnivorous ain't the half of it. That man is
fine.”

  “He's also accused of murder.”

  Connie sighed. “Gonna be a lot of women in Trenton unhappy to see Morelli on ice.”

  I supposed that was true, but I didn't happen to be one of them. After last night, the thought of Morelli behind bars conjured only cozy feelings in my humiliated, vindictive heart. “You have a cross-street reference here?”

  Connie swiveled to face the file cabinets. “It's the big book over the G drawer.”

 
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