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One for the money, p.15
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       One for the Money, p.15

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  Gazarra had agreed to meet me at the pistol range behind Sunny's Gun Shop when he got off work at four o'clock. That left me with a whole day of snooping. I started out by driving past Morelli's mother's house, his cousin's house, and various other relatives' houses. I circled the parking lot to his apartment, noting that the Nova was still where I'd left it. I cruised up and down Stark Street and Polk. I didn't see the van or anything else that might indicate Morelli's presence.

  I drove by the front of Carmen's building, and then I went around back. The service road cutting the block was narrow and badly maintained, pocked with holes. There was no tenant parking back here. The single rear door opened onto the service road. Across the way, asphalt-shingled row houses also butted up to the road.

  I parked as close to the apartment building as possible, leaving barely enough room for a car to squeeze by me. I got out and looked up, trying to place Carmen's second-floor apartment, surprised to see two boarded and fire blackened windows. The windows belonged to the Santiago apartment.

  The street-level back door was propped open, and the acrid odor of smoke and charred wood hung in the air. I heard the sweep of a broom and realized someone was working in the narrow corridor that led to the front foyer.

  A trickle of sooty water tumbled over the sill, and a darkskinned, mustached man looked out at me. He cut his eyes to my car, and jerked his head in the direction of the road. “No parking here.”

  I gave him my card. “I'm looking for Joe Morelli. He's in violation of his bond agreement.”

  “Last I saw him he was flat on his back, out cold.”

  “Did you see him get hit?”

  “No. I didn't get there until after the police. My apartment's in the cellar. Sound doesn't carry good.”

  I looked up at the damaged windows. “What happened?”

  “Fire in the Santiago apartment. Happened on Friday. I guess if you wanted to be picky you'd say it happened Saturday. Was about two in the morning. Thank God no one was home. Mrs. Santiago was at her daughter's. She was babysitting. Usually the kids come here, but on Friday she went to their place.”

  “Anybody know how it started?”

  “Could have started a million ways. Not everything's up to code in a building like this. Not that this building's so bad compared to some others, but it's not new, you know what I mean?”

  I shaded my eyes and took one last look and wondered how hard it'd be to lob a firebomb through Mrs. Santiago's bedroom window. Probably not hard, I decided. And, at two in the morning, in an apartment this size, a fire started in a bedroom would be a bitch. If Santiago had been home, she'd have been toast. There were no balconies and no fire escapes. All of these apartments had only one way out—through the front door. Although it didn't seem as though Carmen and the missing witness had left through the front door.

  I turned and stared into the dark windows of the row houses across the way and decided it wouldn't hurt to question the residents. I got back into the Cherokee and drove around the block, finding a parking place one street over. I rapped on doors and asked questions and showed pictures. The responses were all similar. No, they didn't recognize Morelli's picture, and no, they hadn't seen anything unusual from their back windows on the night of the murder or the fire.

  I tried the row house directly across from Carmen's apartment and found myself face to face with a stooped old man wielding a baseball bat. He was beady-eyed and hooked-nosed and had ears that probably kept him indoors when the wind was blowing.

  “Batting practice?” I asked.

  “Can't be too careful,” he said.

  I identified myself and asked if he'd seen Morelli.

  “Nope. Never seen him. And I got better things to do than to look out my damn windows. Couldn't've seen anything anyway on the night of the murder. It was dark. How the hell was I supposed to see anything?”

  “There are streetlights back there,” I said. “It looks to me like it would be pretty well lit.”

  "The lights were out that night. I told this to the cops that come around. The damn lights are always out. Kids shoot them out. I know they were out because I looked to see what all the noise was about. I could hardly hear my TV what with all the noise from the cop cars and the trucks.

  “The first time I looked out it was because of the motor running on one of them refrigerator trucks . . . like from a food store. Damn thing was parked right behind my house. I tell you the neighborhood's going to hell. People got no consideration. They park trucks and delivery cars here in the alley all the time while they do personal visits. Shouldn't be allowed.”

  I nodded in vague affirmation, thinking it was a good thing I owned a gun because if I ever got this crotchety I'd want to kill myself.

  He took my nod as encouragement and kept going. “Then the next truck to come along was a police wagon about the same size as the refrigerator truck, and they left their motor running too. These guys must have gas to burn.”

  “So then you didn't really see anything suspicious?”

  “Was too damn dark, I'm telling you. King Kong could have been climbing up that wall and nobody would've seen.”

  I thanked him for his help and walked back to the Jeep. It was close to noon, and the air was crackling hot. I drove to my Cousin Roonie's bar, snagged an ice-cold six-pack, and headed for Stark Street.

  Lula and Jackie were hawking wares on the corner, just like always. They were sweating and swaying in the heat, yelling out intimate pet names and graphic suggestions to potential customers. I parked close by, set the six-pack on the hood, and popped one open.

  Lula eyed the beer. “You tryin' to lure us away from our corner, girl?”

  I grinned. I sort of liked them. “Thought you might be thirsty.”

  “Sheeit. Thirsty ain't the half of it.” Lula sauntered over, took a beer, and chugged some. “Don't know why I'm wasting my time standing out. Nobody want to fuck in this weather.”

  Jackie followed. “You shouldn't be doing that,” she warned Lula. “Your old man gonna get mad.”

  “Hunk,” Lula said. “I suppose I care. Dumbass prick pimp. Don't see him standing out here in the sun, do you?”

  “So what's the word on Morelli?” I asked. “Anything happening?”

  “Haven't seen him,” Lula said. “Haven't seen the van neither.”

  “You hear anything about Carmen?”

  “Like what?”

  “Like is she around somewhere?”

  Lula was wearing a halter top with a lot of boob hanging out. She rolled the cold can of beer across her chest. I figured it was wasted effort. She'd need a keg to cool off a chest that size.

  “Don't hear nothing about Carmen.”

  An ugly thought flashed through my mind. “Carmen ever spend time with Ramirez?”

  “Sooner or later everybody spend time with Ramirez.”

  “You ever spend time with him?”

  “Not me. He like to do his magic on skinny pussy.”

  “Suppose he wanted to do his magic on you? Would you go with him?”

  “Honey, nobody refuses Ramirez nothing.”

  “I hear he abuses women.”

  “Lots of men abuse women,” Jackie said. “Sometimes men get in a mood.”

  “Sometimes they're sick,” I said. “Sometimes they're freaks. I hear Ramirez is a freak.”

  Lula looked down the street to the gym, her eyes locked on the second-story windows. “Yeah,” she said softly. “He's a freak. He scares me. I had a friend go with Ramirez, and he cut her bad.”

  “Cut her? With a knife?”

  “No,” she said. “With a beer bottle. Broke the neck and then used it to . . . you know, do the deed.”

  I felt my head go light, and time stood still for a moment. “How do you know it was Ramirez?”

  “People know.”

  “People don't know nothing,” Jackie said. “People shouldn't be talking. Somebody gonna hear, and you be in for it. Be all your own fault, too, 'cause you know bette
r'n to go shootin' your mouth. I'm not staying here and being party to this. Nuh unh. Not me. I'm going back to my corner. You know what's good for you, you'll come too.”

  “I know what's good for me I wouldn't be standing out here at all, would I?” Lula said, moving off.

  “Be careful,” I called after her.

  “Big woman like me don't gotta be careful,” she said. “I just stomp on them weird-ass motherfuckers. Nobody mess with Lula.”

  I stashed the rest of the beer in the car, slid behind the wheel, and locked the doors. I started the engine and turned the air on full blast, positioning all the vents so the cold hit me in the face. “Come on, Stephanie,” I said. “Get a grip.” But I couldn't get a grip. My heart was racing, and my throat was closed tight with grief for a woman I didn't even know, a woman who must have suffered terribly. I wanted to get as far away from Stark Street as was humanly possible and never come back. I didn't want to know about these things, didn't want the terror of it creeping into my consciousness at unguarded moments. I hung onto the wheel and looked down the street at the second-floor gym and was rocked with rage and horror that Ramirez hadn't been punished, and that he was free to mutilate and terrorize other women.

  I lunged out of the car, slammed the door closed, and stalked across the street to Alpha's office building, taking the stairs two at a time. I barreled past his secretary and threw the door to Alpha's inner office open with enough force to make it crash against the wall.

  Alpha jumped in his chair.

  I leaned palms down on his desk top and got right in his face. “I got a phone call last night from your fighter. He was brutalizing some young woman, and he was trying to terrorize me with her suffering. I know all about his previous rape charges, and I know about his fondness for sexual mutilation. I don't know how he's managed to escape prosecution this far, but I'm here to tell you his luck has run out. Either you stop him, or else I'll stop him. I'll go to the police. I'll go to the press. I'll go to the fight commissioner.”

  “Don't do that. I'll take care of it. I swear, I'll take care of it. I'll get him into counseling.”

  “Today!”

  “Yeah. Today. I promise, I'll get him some help.”

  I didn't believe it for a second, but I'd said my piece, so I left in the same whirlwind of bad temper that I'd entered. I forced myself to breathe deep on the stairs and cross the street with a calmness I didn't feel. I pulled out of the parking space and very slowly, very carefully drove away.

  It was still early in the day, but I'd lost my energy for the hunt. My car headed home of its own volition, and next thing I knew I was in my parking lot. I locked up, climbed the stairs to my apartment, flopped down on the bed, and assumed my thinking position.

  I woke up at three and felt better. While I was sleeping, my mind had obviously been hard at work finding secluded repositories for my latest collection of depressing thoughts. They were still with me, but they were no longer forcefully pressing against my forehead.

  I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, gave a bite of it to Rex, and scarfed the rest down while I accessed Morelli's messages.

  A photo studio had called with an offer of a free eight by ten if Morelli came in for a sitting. Someone wanted to sell him light bulbs, and Charlene called with an indecent suggestion, did some heavy panting, and either had a hell of an orgasm or else stepped on her cat's tail. Unfortunately, she also ran the tape out, so there were no more messages. It was just as well. I couldn't have managed listening to much more.

  I was straightening the kitchen when the phone rang and the machine picked it up.

  "Are you listening, Stephanie? Are you home? I saw you talking to Lula and Jackie today. Saw you drinking beer with them. I didn't like that, Stephanie. Made me feel bad. Made me feel like you liked them better than me. Made me angry because you don't want what the champ want to give you.

  “Maybe I'll give you a present, Stephanie. Maybe I'll deliver it to your door when you're sleeping. Would you like that? All women like presents. 'Specially the kind of presents the champ gives. Gonna be a surprise, Stephanie. Gonna be just for you.”

  With that promise ringing in my ears I made sure my gun and my bullets were in my pocketbook, and I took off for Sunny's. I got there at four and waited in the lot until Eddie showed up at four-fifteen.

  He was out of uniform, and he had his off-duty .38 clipped to his waist.

  “Where's your gun?” he asked.

  I patted my pocketbook.

  “That's considered carrying concealed. It's a serious offense in New Jersey.”

  “I have a permit.”

  “Let me see it.”

  I pulled the permit out of my wallet.

  “This is a permit to own, not to carry,” Eddie said.

  “Ranger told me it was multipurpose.”

  “Ranger gonna come visit you when you're making license plates?”

  “Sometimes I think he stretches the limits of the law a trifle. Are you going to arrest me?”

  “No, but it's going to cost you.”

  “Dozen donuts?”

  “Dozen donuts is what it takes to fix a parking ticket. This is worth a six-pack and a pizza.”

  It was necessary to go through the gun shop to get to the rifle range. Eddie paid the range fee and bought a box of shells. I did the same. The range was directly behind the gun shop and consisted of a room the size of a small bowling alley. Seven booths were partitioned off, each booth with a chesthigh shelf. Beyond the booths was known as downrange. Standard targets of ungendered humans cut off at the knees, with bull's-eye rings radiating out from the heart, were hung on pulleys. Range etiquette was never to point the gun at the guy standing next to you.

  “Okay,” Gazarra said, "let's start at the beginning. You have a Smith and Wesson .38 Special. It's a 5-shot revolver, which puts it into the category of small gun. You're using hydroshock bullets to cause maximum pain and suffering. This little doohickey here gets pushed forward with your thumb, the cylinder releases, and you can load your gun. A bullet is a round. Load a round in each chamber and click the cylinder closed. Never leave your trigger finger resting on the trigger. It's a natural reflex to squeeze when surprised, and you could end up blowing a hole in your foot. Stretch your trigger finger straight toward the barrel until you're ready to shoot. We're going to use the most basic stance today. Feet shoulder-width apart, weight on the balls of your feet, hold the gun in both hands, left thumb over right thumb, arms straight. Look at the target, bring the gun up and sight. The front sight is a post. The rear sight is a notch. Line the sights up on the desired spot on the target and fire.

  “This revolver is double action. You can fire by pulling the trigger or by cocking the hammer and then pulling the trigger.” He'd been demonstrating while he talked, doing everything but fire the gun. He released the cylinder, spilled the bullets out onto the shelf, laid the gun on the shelf, and stepped back. “Any questions?”

  “No. Not yet.”

  He handed me a pair of ear protectors. “Go for it.”

  My first shot was single action, and I hit the bull's-eye. I shot several more rounds single action, and then switched over to double action. This was more difficult to control, but I did pretty well.

  After a half hour, I'd used up all my ammo, and I was shooting erratically from muscle fatigue. Usually when I go to the gym I spend most of my time working abdominals and legs because that's where my fat goes. If I was going to be any good at shooting, I was going to have to get more upper body strength.

  Eddie pulled my target in. “Damn fair shooting, Tex.”

  “I'm better at single action.”

  “That's 'cause you're a girl.”

  “You don't want to say stuff like that when I've got a gun in my hand.”

  I bought a box of shells before I left. I dropped the shells into my pocketbook along with my gun. I was driving a stolen car. Worrying about carrying concealed at this point seemed like overkill.

&nb
sp; “So do I get my pizza now?” Eddie wanted to know.

  “What about Shirley?”

  “Shirley's at a baby shower.”

  “The kids?”

  “Mother-in-law.”

  “What about your diet?”

  “You trying to get out of buying this pizza?”

  “I've only got twelve dollars and thirty-three cents distinguishing me from the bag lady at the train station.”

  “Okay, I'll buy the pizza.”

  “Good. I need to talk. I have problems.”

  Ten minutes later, we met at Pino's Pizzeria. There were several Italian restaurants in the burg, but Pino's was the place to get pizza. I was told at night cockroaches as big as barn cats came out to raid the kitchen, but the pizza was first rate—crust that was crisp and puffy, homemade sauce, and enough grease from the pepperoni to run down your arm and drip off your elbow. There was a bar and a family room. Late at night the bar was filled with off-duty cops trying to wind down before they went home. At this time of the day the bar was filled with men waiting for take-out.

 
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