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One for the money, p.11
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       One for the Money, p.11

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “You know anything about Mooch Morelli?” I asked while I looked up his name.

  “Only that he married Shirley Gallo.”

  The only Morelli in Hamilton Township was listed at 617 Bergen Court. I checked it against the wall map behind Connie's desk. If I remembered the area correctly, it was a neighborhood of split-level houses that looked like they deserved my bathroom.

  “You seen Shirley lately?” Connie asked. “She's big as a horse. Must have gained a hundred pounds since high school. I saw her at Margie Manusco's shower. She took up three folding chairs when she sat down, and she had her pocketbook filled with Ding Dongs. I guess they were for an emergency . . . like in case someone beat her to the potato salad.”

  “Shirley Gallo? Fat? She was a rail in high school.”

  “The Lord moves in mysterious ways,” Connie said.

  “Amen.”

  Burg Catholicism was a convenient religion. When the mind boggled, there was always God, waiting in the wings to take the rap.

  Connie handed me the check and plucked at a clump of mascara hanging at the end of her left eyelash. “I'm telling you, it's fucking hard to be classy,” she said.

  * * * * *

  THE GARAGE RANGER RECOMMENDED was in a small light-industrial complex that had its backside rammed up against Route 1. The complex consisted of six concrete bunker-type buildings painted yellow, the color faded by time and highway exhaust. At the inception of the project, the complex architect had most likely envisioned grass and shrubs. The reality was hardpacked dirt littered with butts and Styrofoam cups and some spiky weeds. Each of the six buildings had its own paved drive and parking lot.

  I slowly drove past Capital Printing and A. and J. Extrusions and stopped at the entrance to Al's Auto Body. Three bay doors had been set into the front of the building, but only one gaped open. Bashed-in, rusted cars in various stages of disassembly were crammed into the junkyard at the rear, and late-model fender-bended cars were parked adjacent to the third bay, in a chain-link fenced compound topped with razor wire.

  I rolled into the lot and parked next to a black Toyota four-by-four that had been jacked up on wheels that were sized for a backhoe. I'd stopped at the bank on the way and deposited my recovery check. I knew exactly how much money I was willing to spend on an alarm system, and I wasn't willing to pay a penny more. Most likely the job couldn't be done for my price, but it wouldn't hurt to inquire.

  I opened the car door and stepped outside into oppressive heat, breathing shallowly so I didn't suck in any more heavy metals than was necessary. The sun looked squalid this close to the highway, the pollution diluting the light, compressing the image. The sound of an air wrench carried out of the open bay.

  I crossed the lot and squinted into the dim hellhole of grease guns and oil filters and potentially rude men wearing Day-Glo orange jumpsuits. One of the men ambled over to me. He was wearing the cut off and knotted thigh portion of a pair of queen-size pantyhose on his head. Undoubtedly it was a time-saver in case he wanted to rob a 7-Eleven on the way home. I told him I was looking for Al, and he told me I'd found him.

  “I need an alarm system installed in my car. Ranger said you'd give me a good price.”

  “How you come to know Ranger.”

  “We work together.”

  “That covers a lot of territory.”

  I wasn't sure what he meant by that, and probably I didn't want to know. “I'm a recovery agent.”

  “So you need an alarm system because you gonna be in bad neighborhoods?”

  “Actually, I sort of stole a car, and I'm afraid the owner will try to get it back.”

  Laughter flickered behind his eyes. “Even better.”

  He walked to a bench at the back of the building and returned with a black plastic gadget about three inches square. “This is state-of-the-art security,” he said. “Works on air pressure. Anytime there's a change in air pressure, from a window getting broken or a door opening, this mother'll like to bust your eardrum.” He turned it face up in his hand. “You push this button to set it. Then there's a twenty-second delay before it goes into effect. Gives you time to get out and close the door. There's another twenty-second delay after the door is opened, so you can punch in your code to disarm.”

  “How do I shut it off once the alarm is triggered?”

  “A key.” He dropped a small silver key in my hand. “I suggest you don't leave the key in the car. Defeats the purpose.”

  “It's smaller than I'd expected.”

  “Small but mighty. And the good news is it's cheap because it's easy to install. All you do is screw it onto your dash.”

  “How cheap?”

  “Sixty dollars.”

  “Sold.”

  He pulled a screwdriver out of his back pocket. “Just show me where you want it.”

  “The red Jeep Cherokee, next to the monster truck. I'd like you to put the alarm some place inconspicuous. I don't want to deface the dash.”

  Minutes later I was on my way to Stark Street, feeling pretty pleased with myself. I had an alarm that was not only reasonably priced, but easily removed should I want to install it in the car I intended to buy when I cashed Morelli in. I'd stopped at a 7-Eleven on the way and gotten myself a vanilla yogurt and a carton of orange juice for lunch. I was drinking and driving and slurping, and I was very comfortable in my air-conditioned splendor. I had an alarm, I had nerve gas, I had a yogurt. What more could anyone want?

  I parked directly across from the gym, guzzled the remaining orange juice, set the alarm, took my shoulder bag and file photos of Morelli, and locked up. I was waving the red flag at the bull. The only way I could possibly be more obvious was to plaster a sign to the windshield saying, “Here it is! Try and get it!”

  Street activity was sluggish in the afternoon heat. Two hookers stood at the corner, looking like they were waiting for a bus, except buses didn't run down Stark Street. The women were standing there, obviously bored and disgusted, I suppose because nobody was buying at this time of day. They wore cheap plastic flip-flops, stretchy tank tops, and tight-fitting knit shorts. Their hair had been chopped short and cleverly straightened to boar-bristle quality. I wasn't sure exactly how prostitutes determined price, but if men bought hookers by the pound, these two would be doing okay.

  They went into combat mode as I approached: Hands on hips, lower lips protruding, eyes opened so wide they bulged out like duck eggs.

  “Hey girl,” one of the lovelies called out. “What you think you doing here? This here's our corner, you dig?”

  It would appear there was a fine line between being a babe from the burg and looking like a hooker.

  “I'm looking for a friend. Joe Morelli.” I showed them his picture. “Either of you see him around?”

  “What you want with this Morelli?”

  “It's personal.”

  “I bet.”

  “You know him?”

  She shifted her weight. No small task. “Maybe.”

  “Actually, we were more than friends.”

  “How much more?”

  “The son of a bitch got me pregnant.”

  “You don't look pregnant.”

  “Give me a month.”

  “There's things you can do.”

  “Yeah,” I said, “and number one is find Morelli. You know where he is?”

  “Nuh uh.”

  “You know someone named Carmen Sanchez? She worked at the Step In.”

  “She get you pregnant too?”

  “Thought Morelli might be with her.”

  “Carmen's disappeared,” one of the hookers said. “Happens to women on Stark Street. Environmental hazard.”

  “You want to elaborate on that?”

  “She want to keep her mouth shut, is what she want to do,” the other woman said. “We don't know about any of that shit. And we don't got time to stand here talking to you. We got work to do.”

  I looked up and down the street. Couldn't see any work in sight, so
I assumed I was getting the old heave-ho. I asked their names and was told Lula and Jackie. I gave each of them my card and told them I'd appreciate a call if they saw Morelli or Sanchez. I'd have asked about the missing male witness, but what would I say? Excuse me, have you seen a man with a face like a frying pan?

  I went door-to-door after that, talking to people sitting out on stoops, questioning storekeepers. By four I had a sunburned nose to show for my efforts and not much more. I'd started on the north side of Stark Street and had worked two blocks west. Then I'd crossed the street and inched my way back. I'd slunk past the garage and the gym. I also bypassed the bars. They might be my best source, but they felt dangerous to me and beyond my abilities. Probably I was being unnecessarily cautious, probably the bars were filled with perfectly nice people who could give a rat's ass about my existence. Truth is, I wasn't used to being a minority, and I felt like a black man looking up white women's skirts in a WASP suburb of Birmingham.

  I covered the south side of the next two and a half blocks and recrossed to the north side. Most of the buildings on this side were residential, and as the day progressed more and more people had drifted outdoors, so that the going was slow now as I moved down the street back to my car.

  Fortunately, the Cherokee was still at the curb, and unfortunately, Morelli was nowhere to be seen. I diligently avoided looking up at the gym windows. If Ramirez was watching me, I'd prefer not to acknowledge him. I'd pulled my hair up into a lopsided ponytail, and the back of my neck felt scratchy. I supposed I was burned there too. I wasn't very diligent with sunscreen. Mostly, I counted on the pollution to filter out the cancer rays.

  A woman came hurrying across the street to me. She was solidly built and conservatively dressed, with her black hair pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck.

  “Excuse me,” she said. “Are you Stephanie Plum?”

  “Yes.”

  “Mr. Alpha would like to speak to you,” she said. “His office is just across the street.”

  I didn't know anyone named Alpha, and I wasn't eager to hover in the shadow of Benito Ramirez, but the woman reeked of Catholic respectibility, so I took a chance and followed after her. We entered the building next to the gym. It was an average Stark Street row house. Narrow, three stories, sooty exterior, dark, grimy windows. We hurried up a flight of stairs to a small landing. Three doors opened off the landing. One door was ajar, and I felt air-conditioning spilling out into the hallway.

  “This way,” the woman said, leading me into a cramped reception room dwarfed by a green leather couch and large scarred blond wood desk. A shopworn end table held dog-eared copies of boxing magazines, and pictures of boxers covered walls that cried out for fresh paint.

  She ushered me into an inner office and shut the door behind me. The inner office was a lot like the reception room with the exception of two windows looking down at the street. The man behind the desk stood when I entered. He was wearing pleated dress slacks and a short-sleeved shirt open at the neck. His face was lined and had a good start on jowls. His stocky body still showed muscle, but age had added love handles to his waist and streaks of gunmetal gray to his slicked-back black hair. I placed him in his late fifties and decided his life hadn't been all roses.

  He leaned forward and extended his hand. “Jimmy Alpha. I manage Benito Ramirez.”

  I nodded, not sure how to respond. My first reaction was to shriek, but that would probably be unprofessional.

  He motioned me to a folding chair placed slightly to the side of his desk. “I heard you were back on the street, and I wanted to take this opportunity to apologize. I know what happened in the gym between you and Benito. I tried to call you, but your phone was disconnected.”

  His apology stirred fresh anger. “Ramirez's behavior was unprovoked and inexcusable.”

  Alpha looked genuinely embarrassed. “I never thought I'd have problems like this,” he said. “All I ever wanted was to have a top boxer, and now I got one, and it's giving me ulcers.” He took an economy-sized bottle of Mylanta from his top drawer. “See this? I buy this stuff by the case.” He unscrewed the cap and chugged some. He put his fist to his sternum and sighed. “I'm sorry. I'm genuinely sorry for what happened to you in the gym.”

  “There's no reason for you to apologize. It's not your problem.”

  “I wish that was true. Unfortunately, it is my problem.” He screwed the cap back on, returned the bottle to the drawer, and leaned forward, arms resting on his desk. “You work for Vinnie.”

  “Yes.”

  “I know Vinnie from way back. Vinnie's a character.”

  He smiled, and I figured somewhere in his travels he must have heard about the duck.

  He sobered himself, fixed his eyes on his thumbs, and sagged a little in his seat. “Sometimes I don't know what to do with Benito. He's not a bad kid. He just doesn't know a lot of stuff. All he knows is boxing. All this success is hard on a man like Benito, who comes from nowhere.”

  He looked up to see if I was buying. I made a derisive sound, and he acknowledged my disgust.

  “I'm not excusing him,” he said, his face a study in bitterness. “Benito does things that are wrong. I don't have any influence on him these days. He's full of himself. And he's got himself surrounded by guys who only got brains in their boxing gloves.”

  “That gym was filled with able-bodied men who did nothing to help me.”

  “I talked to them about it. Was a time when women were respected, but now nothing's respected. Drive-by killings, drugs . . .” He went quiet and sunk into his own thoughts.

  I remembered what Morelli had told me about Ramirez and previous rape charges. Alpha was either sticking his head in the sand or else he was actively engaged in cleaning up the mess made by the golden goose. I was putting money on the sand theory.

  I stared at him in stony silence, feeling too isolated in his second-floor ghetto office to honestly vent my thoughts, feeling too angry to attempt polite murmurings.

  “If Benito bothers you again, you let me know right away,” Alpha said. “I don't like when this kind of stuff happens.”

  “He came to my apartment the night before last and tried to get in. He was abusive in the hall, and he made a mess on my door. If it happens again, I'm filing charges.”

  Alpha was visibly shaken. “Nobody told me. He didn't hurt anybody, did he?”

  “No one was hurt.”

  Alpha took a card from the top of his desk and scribbled a number on it. “This is my home phone,” he said, handing me the card. “You have any more trouble, you call me right away. If he damaged your door I'll make good on it.”

  “The door's okay. Just keep him away from me.”

  Alpha pressed his lips together and nodded.

  “I don't suppose you know anything about Carmen Sanchez?”

  “Only what I read in the papers.”

  * * * * *

  I TURNED LEFT AT STATE STREET and pushed my way into rush-hour traffic. The light changed, and we all inched forward. I had enough money left to buy a few groceries, so I bypassed my apartment and drove an extra quarter mile down the road to Super-Fresh.

  It occurred to me while I was standing at the checkout that Morelli had to be getting food from somewhere or someone. Did he scuttle around Super-Fresh wearing a Groucho Marx mustache and glasses with a fake nose attached? And where was he living? Maybe he was living in the blue van. I'd assumed he'd dumped it after being spotted, but maybe not. Maybe it was too convenient. Maybe it was his command headquarters with a cache of canned goods. And, I thought it was possible he had monitoring equipment in the van. He'd been across the street, spying on Ramirez, so maybe he was listening as well.

  I hadn't seen the van on Stark Street. I hadn't been actively looking for it, but I wouldn't have passed it by, either. I didn't know a whole lot about electronic surveillance, but I knew the surveillor had to be fairly close to the surveillee. Something to think about. Maybe I could find Morelli by looking for the van.
<
br />   I was forced to park at the rear of my lot, and did so harboring a few testy thoughts about handicapped old people who took all the best parking slots. I gripped three plastic grocery bags in each hand, plus a six-pack. I eased the Cherokee's door closed with my knee. I could feel my arms stretching against the weight, the bags clumsily banging around my knees as I walked, reminding me of a joke I'd once heard having to do with elephant testicles.

  I took the elevator, wobbled the short distance down the hall, and set my bags on the carpet while I felt around for my key. I opened the door, switched on the light, shuttled my groceries into the kitchen, and returned to lock my front door. I did the grocery unpacking bit, sorting out cupboard stuff from refrigerator stuff. It felt good to have a little cache of food again. It was my heritage to hoard. Housewives in the burg were always prepared for disaster, stockpiling toilet paper and cans of creamed corn in case the blizzard of aughty-aught should ever repeat itself.

 
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