Hard eight, p.13
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       Hard Eight, p.13

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “You've got your door locked,” Abruzzi said when he walked over. “Are you afraid of me?”

  “If I was afraid of you, I'd have the motor running. Do you come here often?”

  “I like to keep an eye on my properties,” he said. “What are you doing here? You aren't planning on breaking in again, are you?”

  “Nope. I'm just sightseeing. Strange coincidence that you always show up when I'm here.”

  “It's not a coincidence,” Abruzzi said. “I have informants everywhere. I know everything you do.”

  “Everything?”

  He shrugged. “Many things. For instance, I know you were at the park on Sunday. And then you had an unfortunate accident with your car.”

  “Some moron thought it would be cute to put spiders in my car.”

  “Do you like spiders?”

  “They're okay. Not as much fun as bunnies, for instance.”

  “I understand you hit a parked car.”

  “One of the spiders took me by surprise.”

  “The element of surprise is important in a battle.”

  “This isn't a battle. I'm trying to put an old woman's mind at ease by finding a little girl.”

  “You must think I'm stupid. You're a bounty hunter. A mercenary. You know perfectly well what this is about. You're in this for the money. You know what the stakes are. And you know what I'm trying to recover. What you don't know is who you're dealing with. I'm toying with you now, but at some point the game will get boring for me. If you haven't come over to my side by the time I get bored with the game, I'll come after you with a vengeance, and I'll rip the heart out of your body while it's still beating.”

  Yikes.

  He was dressed in a suit and tie. Very tasteful. Looked expensive. No gravy stains on the tie. He was insane, but at least he dressed well.

  “Guess I'll go now,” I said. “You probably want to go home and get medicated.”

  “Nice to know you like bunnies,” he said.

  I cranked the engine over and took off. Abruzzi stood there, staring after me. I checked my rearview mirror for a tail. Didn't see anyone. I wiggled around a couple streets. Still no tail. I had a bad feeling in my stomach. It felt a lot like horror.

  I drove past my parents' house and noticed Uncle Sandor's Buick was parked in the driveway. My sister was using the Buick until she saved enough money to get her own car. But my sister was supposed to be at work. I pulled in behind her and popped into the house. Grandma Mazur, my mom, and Valerie were all at the kitchen table. They had coffee in front of them but no one was drinking.

  I opted for a soda and took the fourth chair. “What's up?”

  “Your sister got fired from her job at the bank,” Grandma Mazur said. “She got into a fight with her boss, and she got herself fired, on the spot.”

  Valerie fighting with someone? Saint Valerie? The sister with the disposition of vanilla pudding?

  When we were kids Valerie always turned her homework in on time, made her bed before going to school, and was thought to bear an uncanny resemblance to the serene plaster statues of the Virgin Mary found on Burg lawns and in Burg churches. Even Valerie's period came and went with serenity, always arriving on schedule to the minute, the flow delicate, the mood swings going from nice to nicer.

  I was the sister who got cramps.

  “What happened?” I asked. “How could you get into a fight with your boss? You just started that job.”

  “She was unreasonable,” Valerie said. “And mean. I made one tiny mistake, and she was horrible about it, yelling at me in front of everyone. And before I knew it I was yelling back. And then I got fired.”

  “You yelled?”

  “I haven't been myself lately.”

  No shit. Last month she decided she was going to try being a lesbian, and this month she was yelling. What was next? Full head rotation?

  “So what was the mistake?”

  “I spilled some soup. That's all I did. I spilled a little soup.”

  “It was one of them Cup-a-Soup things,” Grandma said to me. “It had them itty-bitty noodles in it. Valerie dumped the whole thing onto a computer, and it seeped between the cracks and blew out the system. They just about had to shut the bank down.”

  I didn't want bad things to happen to Val. Still, it was kind of nice to see her screw up after a lifetime of perfection.

  “I don't suppose you remember anything new about Evelyn?” I asked Valerie. “Mary Alice said she and Annie were best friends.”

  “They were school friends,” Valerie said. “I don't remember ever seeing Annie.”

  I looked over at my mother. “Did you know Annie?”

  “Evelyn used to bring her around when she was younger, but they stopped visiting a couple years ago when Evelyn started having problems. And Annie never came to the house with Mary Alice. For that matter, I don't think Mary Alice ever talked about Annie.”

  “Least not so we could understand,” Grandma said. “She might of said something in horse talk.”

  Valerie was looking depressed, pushing a cookie around on the kitchen table with her finger. If I was depressed, the cookie would be history. Come to think of it . . .

  “Do you want that cookie?” I asked Valerie.

  “I bet those little soup noodles looked like worms,” Grandma said. “Remember when Stephanie got worms? The doctor said they came off the lettuce. He said we didn't wash the lettuce good enough.”

  I'd forgotten about the worms. Not one of my favorite childhood memories. Right up there with the day I vomited spaghetti and meatballs on Anthony Balderri.

  I finished my soda, ate Valerie's cookie, and went next door and checked in with Mabel.

  “Anything new?” I asked Mabel.

  “I got another call from the bail bonds company. They won't just come in here and throw me out, will they?”

  “No. It'll have to go through legal channels. And the bond company involved is reputable.”

  “I haven't heard from Evelyn since she left,” Mabel said. “I thought for sure I'd hear from her by now.”

  I returned to my car, and I tapped a call in to Dotty.

  “It's Stephanie Plum,” I said. “Is everything okay?”

  “That woman you told me about is still sitting in front of my house. I even took the day off because she's creeping me out. I called the police, but they said they couldn't do anything.”

  “Do you have my card with my pager number?”

  “Yes.”

  “Call me if you need to see Evelyn. I'll help you get past Jeanne Ellen.”

  I disconnected and did a palms-up in the car, all by myself. What more could I do?

  I jumped when my phone rang. It was Dotty calling back. “Okay, I need help. I'm not saying I know where Evelyn is staying. I'm just saying I need to go somewhere, and I can't be followed.”

  “Understood. I'm about forty minutes away.”

  “Come in through the back again.”

  So maybe Jeanne Ellen was doing me a favor. She'd put Dotty into a situation where she needed me. How bizarre is that?

  First thing I did was stop by the office and get Lula.

  “Let's rock and roll,” Lula said. “I'll distract the heck out of Jeanne Ellen. I'm the queen of distraction.”

  “Great. Just remember, no shooting.”

  “Maybe a tire,” Lula said.

  “Not a tire. Nothing. No shooting.”

  “I hope you realize this puts a big crimp in my distracting.”

  Lula was wearing the new boots with a lemon yellow spandex miniskirt. I didn't think she'd have a distraction problem.

  “This is the plan,” I said when we got to South River. “I'm going to park one street over from Dotty, and we'll go in through the back. Then you can keep Jeanne Ellen busy while I take Dotty to Evelyn.”

  I took the shortest path through the yards and knocked once on Dotty's back door.

  Dotty opened the door and stifled a scream. “Holy Jesus,” she said. “
I wasn't expecting . . . two people.”

  What she wasn't expecting was a plus-size black woman bulging out of a tiny yellow skirt.

  “This is my partner, Lula,” I said. “She's good at creating a distraction.”

  “No kidding.” Dotty was dressed in jeans and sneakers. She had a bag of groceries on the kitchen table and a two-year-old under her arm.

  “This is my problem,” Dotty said. “I have a friend who has no food in the house and can't go out to get any. I want to take these groceries to her.”

  “Is Jeanne Ellen out front?”

  “She left about ten minutes ago. She does that. She'll sit there for hours, and then she'll go away for a while, but she always comes back.”

  “Why don't you take the groceries to your friend when Jeanne Ellen leaves?”

  “You said not to do that. You said even if I didn't see her she'd follow me.”

  “Good point. Okay, here's the plan. You and I will cut through the back and take my car. And Lula will drive your car. Lula will make sure we're not followed, and she'll decoy Jeanne Ellen off, if Jeanne Ellen appears.”

  “No good,” Dotty said. “I have to go alone. And I need someone to sit with the kids. My sitter just punked out on me. It's going to have to be that I cut through the yard and use your car, and you take care of the kids. I won't be long.”

  Lula and I shouted no simultaneously.

  “Not a great idea,” I said. “We don't baby-sit. We don't actually know anything about kids.” I looked over at Lula. “Do you know anything about kids?”

  Lula shook her head vigorously. “I don't know nothing about kids. I don't want to know nothing about kids, either.”

  “If I don't get this food to Evelyn she's going to go out and get it herself. If she's recognized, she'll have to move on.”

  “Evelyn and Annie can't stay hidden forever,” I said.

  “I know that. I'm trying to straighten things out.”

  “By talking to Soder?”

  The surprise was obvious on her face. “You were watching me, too.”

  “Soder didn't look happy. What were you arguing about?”

  “I can't tell you. And I need to go. Please let me go.”

  “I want to talk to Evelyn on the phone. I need to know she's okay. If I can talk to her on the phone, I'll let you go. And Lula and I will baby-sit.”

  “Hold on here,” Lula said. “That don't sound like a deal to me. Kids spook me out.”

  “Okay,” Dottie said. “I don't see where it'll harm anything to let you talk to Evelyn.”

  She went to the living room to dial. There was a brief conversation, Dotty returned, and passed the phone to me.

  “Your grandmother is worried,” I told Evelyn. “She's worried about you and Annie.”

  “Tell her we're alright. And please stop looking for us. You're just making things more complicated.”

  “I'm not the person you have to worry about. Steven's hired a private investigator, and she's good at finding people.”

  “Dotty told me.”

  “I'd like to talk to you.”

  “I can't talk now. I have to get things straightened out first.”

  “What things?”

  “I can't talk about it.” And she hung up.

  I gave Dotty the keys to my car. “Keep your eyes open for Jeanne Ellen. Check your rearview mirror for a tail.”

  Dotty grabbed the bag of groceries. “Don't let Scotty drink out of the toilet,” she said. And then she took off.

  The two-year-old was standing in the middle of the kitchen floor, looking at Lula and me like he'd never seen humans before.

  “You think that's Scotty?” Lula asked.

  A little girl appeared in the doorway leading to the bedrooms. “Scotty is a dog,” she said. “My brother's name is Oliver. Who are you?”

  “We're the baby-sitters,” Lula said.

  Stephanie Plum 8 - Hard Eight

  8

  “WHERE'S BONNIE?” THE little girl asked. “Bonnie always baby-sits for Oliver and me.”

  “Bonnie punked out,” Lula said. “So you get us.”

  “I don't want you to baby-sit for me. You're fat.”

  “I'm not fat. I'm a substantial woman. And you better watch what you say on account of you say things like that in first grade and they'll kick your ass out of school. I bet they don't put up with that kind of talk in first grade.”

  “I'm going to tell my mother you said ass. She won't pay you after she finds out you said ass. And she won't ever have you baby-sit again.”

  “And what's the bad news?” Lula asked.

  “This is Lula. And I'm Stephanie,” I said to the little girl. “What's your name?”

  “My name is Amanda, and I'm seven years old. And I don't like you, either.”

  “Bet she's gonna be a treat when she's old enough for PMS,” Lula said.

  “Your mom shouldn't be long,” I said to Amanda. “How about we put the television on?”

  “Oliver won't like that,” Amanda said.

  “Oliver,” I said, “do you want to watch television?”

  Oliver shook his head. “No,” he yelled. “No, no, no!” And he started crying. Loud.

  “Now you did it,” Lula said. “Why's he crying? Man, I can't hear myself think. Somebody get him to stop.”

  I bent down to Oliver's level. “Hey, big guy,” I said. “What's the matter?”

  “No, no, no!” he yelled. His face was brick red, scrinched up in anger.

  “He keep frowning like that and he's gonna need Botox,” Lula said.

  I felt around in the diaper area. He didn't seem wet. He didn't have a spoon stuck up his nose. No limbs seemed to be severed. “I don't know what's wrong,” I said. “I mostly know about hamsters.”

  “Well, don't look at me,” Lula said. “I don't know nothing about kids. I never even was one. I was born in a crack house. Being a kid wasn't an option in my neighborhood.”

  “He's hungry,” Amanda said. “He's going to cry like that until you feed him.”

  I found a box of cookies in the cupboard and held one out to Oliver.

  “No,” he yelled, and he knocked the cookie out of my hand.

  A scruffy-looking dog rushed in from the bedroom area and ate the cookie before it hit the floor.

  “Oliver doesn't want to eat a cookie,” Amanda said.

  Lula had her hands over her ears. “I'm gonna go deaf if he don't stop this howling. I'm getting a headache.”

  I got a bottle of juice out of the refrigerator. “Do you want this?” I asked.

  “No!”

  I tried ice cream.

  “No!”

  “How about a leg of lamb?” Lula asked. “I wouldn't mind having some leg of lamb.”

  He was on the floor now, on his back, kicking his heels against the tile. “No, no, no!”

  “This here's a full-blown tantrum,” Lula said. “This kid needs a timeout.”

  “I'm telling my mother you made Oliver cry,” Amanda said.

  “Hey, give me a break,” I said. “I'm trying. You're his sister. Help me out here.”

  “He wants a grilled cheese sandwich,” Amanda said. “It's his favorite food.”

  “Good thing he didn't want the leg of lamb,” Lula said. “We wouldn't know how to cook that.”

  I found a pan and some butter and cheese, and I started the bread frying in the pan. Oliver was still bellowing at the top of his lungs, and now the dog was yapping, running in circles around him.

  The doorbell rang, and I figured with the sort of luck I was having it was probably Jeanne Ellen. I left Lula in charge of the grilled cheese sandwich, and I went to answer the door. I was wrong about it being Jeanne Ellen, but I was right about my luck. It was Steven Soder.

  “What the hell?” he said. “What are you doing here?”

  “Visiting.”

  “Where's Dotty? I need to talk to her.”

  “Hey,” Lula called from the kitchen, “I need an opinion on
this grilled cheese.”

  “Who's that?” Soder wanted to know. “That doesn't sound like Dotty. That sounds like the fatso who hit me with her purse.”

 
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