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One for the money, p.12
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       One for the Money, p.12

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  Even Rex was excited by the activity, watching from his cage with his little pink hamster feet pressed against the glass.

  “Better days are coming, Rex,” I said, giving him an apple slice. “From here on in it's all apples and broccoli.”

  I'd gotten a city map at the supermarket, and I spread it out on my table while I picked at dinner. Tomorrow I'd be methodical about searching for the blue van. I'd check the area surrounding the gym, and I'd also check out Ramirez's home address. I hauled out my phone book and looked up Ramirez. Twenty-three were listed. Three had B as the first initial. There were two Benitos. I dialed the first Benito and a woman answered on the fourth ring. I could hear a baby crying in the background.

  “Does Benito Ramirez, the boxer, live there?” I asked.

  The reply came in Spanish and didn't sound friendly. I apologized for disturbing her and hung up. The second Benito answered his own phone and was definitely not the Ramirez I was looking for. The three Bs were also dead ends. It didn't seem worthwhile to call the remaining eighteen numbers. In a way I was relieved not to have found him. I don't know what I would have said. Nothing, I suppose. I was looking for an address, not a conversation. And the truth is the very thought of Ramirez sent a chill to my heart. I could stake out the gym and try to follow Ramirez when he left for the day, but the big red Cherokee wasn't exactly inconspicuous. Eddie might be able to help me. Cops had ways of getting addresses. Who else did I know who had access to addresses? Marilyn Truro worked for the DMV. If I had a license plate number, she could probably pull an address. Or I could call the gym. Nah, that'd be too easy.

  Well, what the hell, I thought. Give it a shot. I'd torn the page advertising the gym out of my phone book, so I dialed information. I thanked the operator and dialed the number. I told the man who answered the phone that I was supposed to meet Benito, but I'd lost his address.

  “Sure,” he said. “It's 320 Polk. Don't know the apartment number, but it's on the second floor. It's at the rear of the hall. Got his name on the door. Can't miss it.”

  “Thanks,” I told him. “Really appreciate it.”

  I pushed the phone to the far corner of the table and turned to the map to place Polk. The map showed it to be at the edge of the ghetto, running parallel to Stark. I circled the address with yellow marker. Now I had two sites to search for the van. I'd park and go on foot if I had to, prowling through alleys and investigating garages. I'd do this first thing in the morning, and if nothing developed, I'd go back to the stack of FTAs Connie had given me and try to make some rent money doing nickel-and-dime cases.

  I double-checked all my windows to make sure they were locked, then I drew all the curtains. I wanted to take a shower and go to bed early, and I didn't want any surprise visitors.

  I straightened my apartment, trying not to notice the empty spaces where appliances had been, trying to ignore the phantom furniture indentations persisting in the living room carpet. Morelli's $10,000 recovery fee would go a long way toward restoring some semblance of normalcy to my life, but it was a stopgap measure. Probably I should still be applying for jobs.

  Who was I kidding. I'd covered all the bases in my field.

  I could stay with skip tracing, but it seemed risky at best. And at worst . . . I didn't even want to think about worst. Besides getting used to being threatened, hated, and possibly molested, wounded, or God forbid killed, I'd have to establish a self-employed mind-set. And I'd have to invest in martial arts coaching and learn some police techniques for subduing felons. I didn't want to turn myself into the Terminator, but I didn't want to continue to operate at my present Elmer Fudd level, either. If I had a television I could watch reruns of Cagney and Lacey.

  I remembered my plan to get another dead bolt installed and decided to visit Dillon Ruddick, the super. Dillon and I were buds, being that we were just about the only two people in the building who didn't think Metamusil was one of the four major food groups. Dillon moved his lips when he read the funnies, but put a tool in the man's hand and he was pure genius. He lived in the bowels of the building, in a carpeted efficiency that never saw the natural light of day. There was a constant backround seranade as boilers and water heaters rumbled and water swished through pipes. Dillon said he liked it. Said he pretended it was the ocean.

  “Hey Dillon,” I said when he answered the door. “How's it going?”

  “Going okay. Can't complain. What can I do for you?”

  “I'm worried about crime, Dillon. I thought it would be a good idea to get another dead bolt put on my door.”

  “That's cool,” he said. “A person can never be too careful. In fact, I just finished putting a dead bolt on Mrs. Luger's door. She said some big, huge guy was yelling in the halls, late at night, couple days ago. Said it scared the whatever out of her. Maybe you heard him, too. Mrs. Luger's just two doors down from you.”

  I resisted the urge to swallow and go “gulp.” I knew the name of the big, huge guy.

  “I'll try to get the lock on tomorrow,” Dillon said. “In the meantime, how about a beer.”

  “A beer would be good.”

  Dillon handed me a bottle and a can of mixed nuts. He boosted the sound back up on the TV, and we both plopped down on the couch.

  * * * * *

  I'D SET MY ALARM FOR EIGHT, but I was up at seven, anxious to find the van. I took a shower and spent some time on my hair, doing the blow-drying thing, adding some gel and some spray. When I was done I looked like Cher on a bad day. Still, Cher on a bad day wasn't all that bad. I was down to my last clean pair of spandex shorts. I tugged on a matching sports bra that doubled as a halter top and slid a big, loose, purple T-shirt with a large, droopy neck over my head. I laced up my hightop Reeboks, crunched down my white socks, and felt pretty cool.

  I ate Frosted Flakes for breakfast. If they were good enough for Tony the Tiger, they were good enough for me. I swallowed down a multivitamin, brushed my teeth, poked a couple of big gold hoops through my earlobes, applied glow-in-the-dark Cherry Red lipstick, and I was ready to go.

  Cicadas droned their early warning of another scorcher day, and the blacktop steamed with what was left of morning dew. I pulled out of the lot into the steady stream of traffic on St. James. I had the map spread out on the seat next to me, plus a steno pad I'd begun to use for phone numbers, addresses, and miscellaneous bits of information relating to the job.

  Ramirez's apartment building was set in the middle of the block, its identity lost in a crush of four-story walk-ups built cheek by jowl for the working poor. Most likely the building had originally held immigrant laborers—Irish, Italian, Polish hopefuls barged up the Delaware to work in Trenton's factories. It was difficult to tell who lived here now. There were no old men loitering on front stoops, no children playing on the sidewalk. Two middle-aged Asian women stood waiting at a bus stop, their purses held tight against their chests, their faces expressionless. There were no vans in sight, and no place to hide one. No garages or alleys. If Morelli was keeping tabs on Ramirez, it would have to be from the rear or from an adjacent apartment.

  I drove around the corner and found the single-lane service road that cut the block. There were no garages back here, either. An asphalt slab had been laid tight to the rear of Ramirez's building. Diagonal parking for six cars had been lined off on the slab. Only four cars were parked. Three old clunkers and a Silver Porsche with a license plate holder that had “The Champ” printed on it in gold. None of the cars were occupied.

  Across the service road were more tenement-type apartments. This would be a reasonable place for Morelli to watch or listen, I thought, but there was no sign of him.

  I drove through the service road and circled the block, methodically enlarging the area until I'd covered all drivable streets for a nine-block square. The van didn't turn up.

  I headed for Stark Street and repeated the procedure, looking for the van. There were garages and alleys here, so I parked the Cherokee and set out on foot. By twelve-thirty I'd s
nooped in enough broken-down, smelly garages to last me a lifetime. If I crossed my eyes I could see my nose peeling, my hair was sticking to the back of my sweaty neck, and I had bursitis from carrying my hulking shoulder bag.

  By the time I got back to the Cherokee, my feet felt like they were on fire. I leaned against the car and checked to make sure my soles weren't melting. A block away I could see Lula and Jackie staking out their corner. I figured it wouldn't hurt to talk to them again.

  “Still looking for Morelli?” Lula asked.

  I shoved my dark glasses to the top of my head. “Have you seen him?”

  “Nope. Haven't heard nothing about him, either. Man's keeping a low profile.”

  “How about his van?”

  “Don't know nothing about a van. Lately, Morelli's been driving a red and gold Cherokee . . . like the one you're driving.” Her eyes widened. “Sheee-it, that ain't Morelli's car, is it?”

  “I sort of borrowed it.”

  Lula's face split in a grin. “Honey, you telling me you stole Morelli's car? Girl, he gonna kick your skinny white butt.”

  “Couple days ago I saw him driving a faded blue Econoline,” I said. “It had antennae sticking out all over the place. You see anything like that cruise by?”

  “We didn't see nothing,” Jackie said.

  I turned to Lula. “How about you, Lula? You see a blue van?”

  “Tell me the truth now? You really pregnant?” Lula asked.

  “No, but I could have been.” Fourteen years ago.

  “So what's going on here. What you really want with Morelli?”

  “I work for his bondsman. Morelli is FTA.”

  “No shit? There any money in that?”

  “Ten percent of the bond.”

  “I could do that,” Lula said. “Maybe I should change my profession.”

  “Maybe you should stop talking and look like you want to give some before your old man beats the crap out of you,” Jackie said.

  I drove back to my apartment, ate some more Frosted Flakes, and called my mother.

  “I made a nice big pot of stuffed cabbages,” she said. “You should come for supper.”

  “Sounds good, but I have things to do.”

  “Like what? What's so important you can't take time to eat some stuffed cabbages?”

  “Work.”

  “What kind of work? Are you still trying to find the Morelli boy?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You should get a different job. I saw a sign at Clara's Beauty Salon they need a shampoo girl.”

  I could hear my Grandma Mazur yelling something in the background.

  “Oh yeah,” my mother said. “You had a phone call this morning from that boxer you went to see, Benito Ramirez. Your father was so excited. Such a nice young man. So polite.”

  “What did Ramirez want?”

  “He said he'd been trying to get in touch with you, but your phone had been disconnected. I told him it was okay now.”

  I mentally banged my head against the wall. “Benito Ramirez is a sleaze. If he calls up again, don't talk to him.”

  “He was polite to me on the phone.”

  Yeah, I thought, the most courteous homicidal rapist in Trenton. And now he knew he could call me.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  8

  MY APARTMENT BUILDING was pre-laundry room vintage, and the present owner felt no compulsion to add amenities. The nearest coin-op, Super Suds, was about a half mile away on Hamilton. Not a journey of insurmountable proportions, but a pain in the ass all the same.

  I tucked the stack of FTAs I'd received from Connie into my pocketbook and slung my pocketbook over my shoulder. I lugged my laundry basket into the hall, locked my door, and hauled myself out to the car.

  As far as laundromats went, Super Suds wasn't bad. There was parking in a small lot to the side of the building and a luncheonette next door where a person could get a tasty chicken salad sandwich if a person had cash on hand. I happened to be low on cash on hand, so I dumped my laundry into a machine, added detergent and quarters, and settled down to review my FTAs.

  Lonnie Dodd was at the top of the stack and seemed like the easiest apprehension. He was twenty-two and lived in Hamilton Township. He'd been charged with auto theft. A first-time offender. I used the laundromat pay phone to call Connie to verify that Dodd was still outstanding.

  “He's probably in his garage, changing his oil,” she said. “Happens all the time. It's one of those man things. Hell, they say to themselves, nobody's gonna push me around. All I did was steal a few cars. What's the big fuckin' deal? So they don't show up for their court date.”

  I thanked Connie for her insight and returned to my chair. As soon as my laundry was done, I'd mosey on over to Dodd's place and see if I could find him.

  I slid the files back into my pocketbook and transferred my clothes to the dryer. I sat down, looked out the big plate glass front window, and the blue van rolled by. I was so startled I froze, mouth open, eyes glazed, mind blank. Not what you would call a quick draw. The van disappeared down the street, and in the distance I could see the brake lights go on. Morelli was stopped in traffic.

  Now I moved. Actually, I think I flew, because I don't remember my feet touching pavement. I peeled out of the lot, smoking rubber. I got to the corner and the alarm went off. In my haste I'd forgotten to punch in the code.

  I could barely think for the noise. The key was on my key ring, and the key ring was attached to the key in the ignition. I slammed my foot on the brake, fishtailing to a stop in the middle of the road. I looked in the rearview mirror after the fact, relieved to find there were no cars behind me. I deactivated the alarm and took off again.

  Several cars were between me and Morelli. He turned right, and I gripped the wheel tighter, creeping along, inventing colorful new expletives as I made my way to the intersection. By the time I turned he was gone. I slowly worked my way up and down the streets. I was ready to quit when I spotted the van parked in the back lot to Manni's Deli.

  I stopped at the entrance to the lot and stared at the van, wondering what to do next. I had no way of knowing if Morelli was behind the wheel. He could be stretched out in back, taking a snooze, or he could be in Manni's ordering tuna on a kaiser to go. Probably I should park and investigate. If it turned out he wasn't in the van, I'd hide behind one of the cars and gas him when he came into range.

  I pulled into a slot at the back of the lot, four cars down from the van, and cut the engine. I was about to reach for my bag when suddenly the driver's side door was ripped open, and I was yanked from behind the wheel. I stumbled forward, slamming into the wall of Morelli's chest.

  “Looking for me?” he asked.

  “You might as well give up,” I told him, “because I never will.”

  The line of his mouth tightened. “Tell me about it. Suppose I lay down on the pavement and you run over me a few times with my own car . . . just for old times. Would you like that? Do you get your money dead or alive?”

  “No reason to get testy about it. I have a job to do. It's nothing personal.”

  “Nothing personal? You've harassed my mother, stolen my car, and now you're telling people I've gotten you pregnant! In my opinion, getting someone pregnant is pretty fucking personal! Jesus, isn't it enough I'm accused of murder? What are you, the bounty hunter from hell?”

  “You're overwrought.”

  “I'm beyond overwrought. I'm resigned. Everyone has a cross to bear . . . you're mine. I give up. Take the car. I don't care anymore. All I ask is that you try not to get too many dings on the door and you change the oil when the red light goes on.” His eyes flicked to the car interior. “You're not making phone calls, are you?”

  “No. Of course not.”

  “Phone calls are expensive.”

  “Not to worry.”

  “Shit,” he said. “My life is shit.”

  “Probably this is just a phase.”

  His expression softened
. “I like this outfit you're wearing.” He hooked a finger around the wide neck of my Tshirt and looked inside at the black spandex sports bra. “Very sexy.”

  A flash of heat shot through my stomach. I told myself it was anger, but I suspect carnal panic would be closer to the truth. I smacked his hand away. “Don't be rude.”

  “Well hell, I've made you pregnant, remember? One more little intimacy shouldn't bother you.” He moved closer. “I like the lipstick, too. Cherry red. Very tempting.”

 
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