Hard eight, p.11
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       Hard Eight, p.11

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  She shook her head. “I can't talk about Evelyn.”

  I gave her my card. “Call me if you change your mind. If Evelyn gets in touch with you, and you need to go see her, please consider letting me help you. You can call Mabel and check me out.”

  Dotty looked at the card and nodded. “Okay.”

  I let myself out the back door and slipped through the yards to the street. I walked the half block back to my car and took off for home.

  I STEPPED OUT of the elevator and felt my heart sink at the sight of Kloughn camping in my hall. He was sitting with his back to the wall, legs outstretched, arms crossed over his chest. His face brightened when he saw me, and he scrambled to his feet.

  “Boy,” he said, “you've been gone all afternoon. Where were you? You didn't catch Bender, did you? You wouldn't catch him without me, would you? I mean, we're a team, right?”

  “Right,” I said. “We're a team.” A team without handcuffs.

  I let us into my apartment, and we both migrated to the kitchen. I slid a look at the answering machine. Nothing was blinking. No message from Morelli, pleading for a date. Not that Morelli ever pleaded for anything. Still, a girl could hope. Large mental sigh. I was going to spend Saturday night with Albert Kloughn. It felt like doomsday.

  Kloughn was looking at me expectantly. He was like a puppy, eyes bright, tail wagging, waiting to be taken for a walk. Endearing . . . in an incredibly annoying sort of way.

  “Now what?” he asked. “What do we do now?”

  I needed to think about this. Usually the problem is finding the FTA. I never had a problem finding Bender. I had a problem hanging on to him.

  I opened the refrigerator and stared inside. My motto has always been, When all else fails, eat something. “Let's make dinner,” I said.

  “Oh boy, a home-cooked meal. That would really hit the spot. I haven't eaten in hours. Okay, I had a candy bar just before you got here, but that doesn't count, does it? I mean, it's not like real food. And I'm still hungry. It's not like it's a meal, right?”

  “Right.”

  “What should we cook? Pasta? You got some fish? We could have fish. Or a nice steak. I still eat meat. Lots of people don't eat meat anymore, but I still eat it. I eat everything.”

  “Do you eat peanut butter?”

  “Sure. I love peanut butter. Peanut butter is a staple, right?”

  “Right.” I ate a lot of peanut butter. You don't have to cook it. You only dirty one knife in the preparation. And you can count on it. It's always the same. As opposed to picking out a piece of fish, which in my experience is risky.

  I made us peanut butter and bread-and-butter pickle sandwiches. And because I had company, I added a layer of potato chips.

  “This is very creative,” Kloughn said. “You get a lot of textures this way. And you don't get your fingers greasy by eating the potato chips separately. I'll have to remember this. I'm always looking for new recipes.”

  Alright, I was going to take another shot at capturing Bender. I was going to break into his house, one more time. As soon as I located a pair of handcuffs.

  I dialed Lula's number.

  “So,” I said to Lula, “what's going on tonight?”

  “I'm just trying to figure out what to wear, on account of it's Saturday. And it's not like I'm some loser who can't get a date. I'd be out of the house by now, but I can't make up my mind between two dresses.”

  “Do you have handcuffs?”

  “Sure. I got handcuffs. You never know when you need handcuffs.”

  “Maybe I could borrow them. Just for a couple hours. I need to bring Bender in.”

  “You're gonna go get Bender tonight? You need help? I could cancel my date. Then I wouldn't have to decide on a dress. You have to come over here to get the cuffs anyway. You might as well take me with.”

  “You don't actually have a date, do you?”

  “I could if I wanted.”

  “I'll pick you up in a half hour.”

  LULA WAS IN the front seat, and Kloughn was in the backseat. We were parked in front of Bender's apartment, trying to decide on the best approach.

  “You watch the back door,” I said to Lula. “And Albert and I will go in the front door.”

  “I don't like that plan,” Lula said. “I want to go in the front door. And I want to be the one holding the cuffs.”

  “I think Stephanie should hold the cuffs,” Kloughn said. “She's the bounty hunter.”

  “Hunh,” Lula said. “What am I, chopped liver? And besides, they're my cuffs. I should get to hold them. Either I hold them, or you haven't got no cuffs.”

  “Fine!” I said to Lula. “You go in the front door, and you hold the cuffs. Just make sure you get them on Bender.”

  “What about me?” Kloughn wanted to know. “Where do I go? Do I take the back door? What do I do back there? Do I bust in the door?”

  “No! No door busting. You stand there and wait. Your job is to make sure Bender doesn't escape from the back door. So if the back door opens and Bender runs out, you have to stop him.”

  “You can count on me. He won't get past me. I know I look pretty tough, but I'm even tougher than that. I'm real tough.”

  “Right,” Lula and I said in unison.

  Kloughn went around back, and Lula and I marched up to the front door. I rapped on the door and Lula and I stood to either side. There was the unmistakable sound of a shotgun ratcheting back, Lula and I gave each other an oh shit look, and Bender blasted a two-foot hole in his front door.

  Lula and I took off, running. We dove into the car headfirst, there was another shotgun blast, I scrambled behind the wheel and took off, tires smoking. I whipped the car around the side of the building, jumped the curb, and skidded to a stop inches from Kloughn. Lula grabbed Kloughn by the front of his shirt, pulled him into the car, and I rocketed away.

  “What happened?” Kloughn asked. “Why are we leaving? Wasn't he home?”

  “We changed our mind about getting him tonight,” Lula said. “We could have got him if we really wanted, but we changed our mind.”

  “We changed our mind because he shot at us,” I said to Kloughn.

  “I'm pretty sure that's illegal,” Kloughn said. “Did you shoot back?”

  “I was thinking about it,” Lula said, “but you gotta fill out a lot of papers when you shoot someone. I didn't want to take the time tonight.”

  “At least you got to hold the cuffs,” Kloughn said.

  Lula looked down at her hands. No cuffs. “Uh-oh,” Lulu said. “I must have dropped the cuffs in the excitement of the moment. It wasn't that I was scared, you know. I just got excited.”

  On the way through town I stopped at Soder's bar. “This will only take a minute,” I told everyone. “I need to talk to Steven Soder.”

  “Fine by me,” Lula said. “I could use a drink.” She looked over at Kloughn. “How about you, Pufnstuf?”

  “Sure, I could use a drink, too. It's Saturday night, right? You gotta go out and have a drink on Saturday night.”

  “I could have had a date,” Lula said.

  “Me, too,” Kloughn said. “There are lots of women who want to go out with me. I just didn't feel like being bothered. Sometimes it's good to take a night off from all that stuff.”

  “Last time I was in this bar I sort of got thrown out,” Lula said. “You don't suppose they're gonna hold a grudge, do you?”

  Soder saw me when I walked in. “Hey, it's Little Miss Loser,” he said. “And her two loser friends.”

  “Sticks and stones,” I said.

  “Have you found my kid yet?” A taunt, not a question.

  I shrugged. The shrug said maybe I have, but then again maybe I haven't.

  “Looooser,” Soder sang.

  “You should learn some people skills,” I said to him. “You should be more civil to me. And you should have been nicer to Dotty earlier today.”

  That got him standing up straighter. “How do you know about Dotty?”
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  Another shrug.

  “Don't give me another one of them shrugs,” he said. “That birdbrain ex-wife of mine is a kidnapper. And you better tell me if you know anything.”

  I had him wondering about the extent of my knowledge. Probably not smart, but definitely satisfying.

  “I've changed my mind about wanting a drink,” I said to Lula and Kloughn.

  “Okay by me,” Lula said. “I don't like the atmosphere in this bar anyway.”

  Soder took another look at Kloughn. “Hey, I remember you. You're the jerk-off lawyer who represented Evelyn.”

  Kloughn beamed. “You remember me? I didn't think anyone would remember. Boy, how about that.”

  “Evelyn got control of the kid because of you,” Soder said. “You made a big issue about this bar. You put my kid with a drugged-up moron, you incompetent fuck.”

  “She didn't look drugged-up to me,” Kloughn said. “Maybe a little . . . distracted.”

  “How about if I distract my foot up your ass,” Soder said, making for the end of the long oak bar.

  Lula shoved her hand into her big leather shoulder bag. “I got Mace in here, somewhere. I got a gun.”

  I turned Kloughn around and pushed him toward the door. “Go,” I yelled in his ear. “Run for the car!”

  Lula still had her head down, rummaging in her bag. “I know I've got a gun in here.”

  “Forget the gun!” I said to Lula. “Let's just get out of here.”

  “The hell,” Lula said. “This guy deserves to get shot. And I'd do it if I could just find my gun.”

  Soder rounded the bar and charged after Kloughn. I stepped in front of Soder, and he gave me a two-handed shove.

  “Hey, you can't shove her like that,” Lula said. And she smacked Soder in the back of his head with her bag. He whirled around, and she hit him again, this time catching him in the face, knocking him back a couple feet.

  “What?” Soder said, dazed and blinking, swaying slightly.

  Two goons started at us from the other end of the bar, and half the room had guns drawn.

  “Uh-oh,” Lula said. “Guess I left my gun in my other handbag.”

  I grabbed Lula by the sleeve and gave her a yank toward the door, and we both took off running. I beeped the car open with my remote, we all jumped in, and I zoomed away.

  “Soon as I find my gun, I've got a mind to go back there and pop a cap up his ass,” Lula said.

  In all the time I've known Lula, I've never known her to pop a cap up anyone's ass. Unjustified bravado was high on our list of bounty hunter talents.

  “I need a day off,” I said. “I especially need a day without Bender.”

  ONE OF THE good things about hamsters is that you can tell them anything. Hamsters are nonjudgmental as long as you feed them.

  “I have no life,” I said to Rex. “How did it come to this? I used to be such an interesting person. I used to be fun. And now look at me. It's two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, and I've watched Ghostbusters twice. It's not even raining. There's no excuse, except that I'm boring.”

  I glanced over at the answering machine. Maybe it was broken. I lifted the phone receiver and got a dial tone. I pushed the message button and the voice told me I had no messages. Stupid invention.

  “I need a hobby,” I said.

  Rex sent me a yeah, right look. Knitting? Gardening? Decoupage? I don't think so.

  “Okay, then how about sports? I could play tennis.” No, wait a minute, I'd tried tennis and I sucked. What about golf? Nope, I sucked at golf, too.

  I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and the top button was open on my jeans. Too many cupcakes. I got to thinking about Steven Soder calling me a loser. Maybe he was right. I scrinched my eyes closed to see if I could pop out a pity tear for myself. No luck. I sucked my stomach in and buttoned my pants. Pain. And there was a roll of fat hanging over the waistband. Not attractive.

  I stomped into my bedroom and changed into running shorts and shoes. I was not a loser. I had a small roll of fat hanging over my waistband. No big deal. A little exercise and the fat would disappear. And there'd be the added benefit of endorphins. I didn't exactly know what endorphins were but I knew they were good and you got them from exercise.

  I got into the CR-V and drove to the park in Hamilton Township. I could have gone running from my back door but where's the fun in that? In Jersey we never miss an opportunity for a car trip. Besides, the driving gave me prep time. I needed to psych myself up for this exercise stuff. I was going to really get into it this time. I was going to run. I was going to sweat. I was going to look great. I was going to feel great. Maybe I'd actually take up running.

  It was a glorious blue-sky day, and the park was crowded. I got a spot toward the back of the lot, locked the CR-V up, and walked to the jogging path. I did some warm-up stretches and took off at a slow run. After a quarter mile I remembered why I never did this. I hated it. I hated running. I hated sweating. I hated the big, ugly running shoes I was wearing.

  I pushed through to the half-mile mark where I had to stop, thank God, for a stitch in my side. I looked down at the fat roll. It was still there.

  I made it to a mile and collapsed onto a bench. The bench looked out over the lake where people were rowing around in boats. A family of ducks floated close to the shore. Across the lake, I could see the parking lot and a concession stand. There was water at the concession stand. There was no water by my bench. Hell, who was I kidding? I didn't want water, anyway. I wanted a Coke. And a box of Cracker Jacks.

  I was looking out at the ducks, thinking there were times in history when fat rolls were considered sexy, and wasn't it too bad I didn't live during one of those times. A huge, shaggy, prehistoric, orange beast bounded over to me and buried his nose in my crotch. Yipes. It was Morelli's dog, Bob. Bob had originally come to live at my house but after some shifting around had decided he preferred living with Morelli.

  “He's excited to see you,” Morelli said, settling next to me.

  “I thought you were taking him to obedience school.”

  “I did. He learned how to sit and stay and heel. The course didn't address crotch sniffing.” He looked me over. “Flushed face, the hint of sweat at the hairline, hair pulled into a ponytail, running shoes. Let me take a guess here. You've been exercising.”

  “And?”

  “Hey, I think it's great. I'm just surprised. Last time I went running with you, you took a detour into a bakery.”

  “I'm turning over a new leaf.”

  “Can't button your jeans?”

  “Not if I want to breathe at the same time.”

  Bob spotted a duck on the bank and raced after it. The duck took to the water, and Bob splashed in up to his eyeballs. He turned and looked at us, panic stricken. He was possibly the only retriever in the entire world who couldn't swim.

  Morelli waded into the lake and dragged Bob back to the shore. Bob slogged onto the grass, gave himself a shake, and immediately ran off, chasing a squirrel.

  “You're such a hero,” I said to Morelli.

  He kicked his shoes off and rolled his slacks to his knees. “I hear you've been up to some heroics, too. Butch Dziewisz and Frankie Burlew were in Soder's bar last night.”

  “It wasn't my fault.”

  “Of course it was your fault,” Morelli said. “It's always your fault.”

  I did an eye roll.

  “Bob misses you.”

  “Bob should call me sometime. Leave a message on my machine.”

  Morelli slouched back on the bench. “What were you doing in Soder's bar?”

  “I wanted to talk to him about Evelyn and Annie, but he wasn't in a good mood.”

  “Did his mood take a downturn before or after he got clocked with the shoulder bag?”

  “He was actually more mellow after Lula hit him.”

  “Dazed, was the word Butch used.”

  “Dazed could be accurate. We didn't stay around long enough to find out.”

&nbs
p; Bob returned from the squirrel chase and woofed at Morelli.

  “Bob's restless,” Morelli said. “I promised him we'd walk around the lake. Which direction are you headed?”

  It was one mile if I retraced my steps and three miles if I continued around the lake with Morelli. Morelli looked very fine with his pants rolled up, and I was sorely tempted. Unfortunately, I had a blister on my heel, I still had a cramp in my side, and I suspected I wasn't at my most attractive. “I'm headed for the lot,” I said.

 
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