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One for the money, p.16
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       One for the Money, p.16

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  We got a table in the family room and asked for a pitcher while we waited for the pizza. There was a shaker of crushed hot pepper in the middle of the table, and another shaker of Parmesan. The tablecloth was red-and-white checked plastic. The walls were paneled and lacquered to a shiny gloss and decorated with framed photos of famous Italians and a few non-Italian locals. Frank Sinatra and Benito Ramirez were the dominant celebs.

  “So what's the problem?” Eddie wanted to know.

  “Two problems. Number one. Joe Morelli. I've run into him four times since I've taken on this assignment, and I've never once come close to making an apprehension.”

  “Are you afraid of him?”

  “No. But I am afraid to use my gun.”

  “Then do it the ladies' way. Spray him and cuff him.”

  Easier said than done, I thought. It's hard to spray a man when he has his tongue down your throat. “That was my plan, too, but he always moves faster than I do.”

  “You want my advice? Forget Morelli. You're a beginner, and he's a pro. He has years of experience behind him. He was a smart cop, and he's probably even better at being a felon.”

  “Forgetting Morelli isn't an option. I'd like you to run a couple car checks for me.” I wrote the van's license number on a napkin and gave it to him. “See if you can find out who owns this. I'd also like to know if Carmen Sanchez owns a car. And if she does own a car, has it been impounded?”

  I drank some beer and slouched back, enjoying the cold air and the buzz of conversation around me. Every table was filled now, and there was a knot of people waiting at the door. No one wanted to cook when it got this hot.

  “So what's the second problem?” Eddie asked.

  “If I tell you, you have to promise not to get overwrought.”

  “Christ, you're pregnant.”

  I stared at him, nonplussed. “Why would you think that?”

  His expression was sheepish. “I don't know. It just popped out. It's what Shirley always says to me.”

  Gazarra had four kids. The oldest was nine. The youngest was a year. They were all boys, and they were all monsters.

  “Well, I'm not pregnant. It's Ramirez.” I gave him the full story on Ramirez.

  “You should have filed a report on him,” Gazarra said. “Why didn't you call the police when you got roughed up in the gym?”

  “Would Ranger have filed a report if he got roughed up?”

  “You're not Ranger.”

  “That's true, but you see my point?”

  “Why are you telling me this?”

  “I guess if I suddenly disappear, I want you to know where to start looking.”

  “Jesus. If you think he's that dangerous, you should get a restraining order.”

  “I don't have a lot of confidence in a restraining order. Besides, what am I going to tell the judge . . . that Ramirez threatened to send me a present? Look around you. What do you see?”

  Eddie sighed. “Pictures of Ramirez, side by side with the Pope and Frank Sinatra.”

  “I'm sure I'll be fine,” I said. “I just needed to tell someone.”

  “If you have any more problems I want you to call me right away.”

  I nodded.

  “When you're home alone, make sure your gun is loaded and accessible. Could you use it on Ramirez if you had to?”

  “I don't know. I think so.”

  “Scheduling got screwed up, and I'm working days again. I want you to meet me at Sunny's every day at four-thirty. I'll buy the ammo and pay the range fee. The only way to feel comfortable with a gun is to use it.”

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  10

  I WAS HOME BY NINE, and for lack of something better to do, I decided to clean my apartment. There were no messages on my machine and no suspicious packages on my doorstep. I gave Rex new bedding, vacuumed the carpet, scrubbed the bathroom, and polished the few pieces of furniture I had left. This brought me up to ten. I checked one last time to make sure everything was locked, took a shower, and went to bed.

  I awoke at seven feeling elated. I'd slept like a brick. My machine was still gloriously message free. Birds were warbling, the sun was shining, and I could see my reflection in my toaster. I pulled on shorts and shirt and started coffee brewing. I opened the living room curtains and gasped at the magnificence of the day. The sky was a brilliant blue, the air was still washed clean from the rain, and I had an overwhelming desire to belt out something from The Sound of Music. I sang, “The hills are aliiiiive with the sound of muuusic,” but then I didn't know any more words.

  I twirled myself into my bedroom and threw the curtain open with a flourish. I froze at the sight of Lula tied to my fire escape. She hung there like a big rag doll, her arms crooked over the railing at an unnatural angle, her head slumped forward onto her chest. Her legs were splayed so that she seemed to be sitting. She was naked and bloodsmeared, the blood caked in her hair and clotted on her legs. A sheet had been draped behind her to hide her from view of the parking lot.

  I shouted her name and clawed at the lock, my heart hammering so hard in my chest that my vision blurred. I heaved the window open and half fell onto the fire escape, reaching out for her, tugging ineffectually at her bindings.

  Lula didn't move, didn't utter a sound, and I couldn't collect myself enough to tell if she was breathing. “You're going to be okay,” I cried, my voice sounding hoarse, my throat closed tight, my lungs burning. “I'm going to get help.” And under my breath I sobbed, “Don't be dead. God Lula, don't be dead.”

  I floundered back through the window to call for an ambulance, caught my foot on the sill, and crashed to the floor. There was no pain, only panic as I scrambled on hands and knees to the phone. I couldn't remember the emergency number. My mind had shut down in the face of hysteria, leaving me to cope helplessly with the confusion and denial accompanying sudden and unexpected tragedy.

  I punched 0 and told the operator Lula was hurt on my fire escape. I had a flashback of Jackie Kennedy crawling over the car seat to get help for her dead husband, and I burst into tears, crying for Lula and Jackie and for myself, all victims of violence.

  I clattered through the cutlery drawer, looking for my paring knife, finally finding it in the dish drainer. I had no idea how long Lula had been tied to the railing, but I couldn't bear her hanging there seconds longer.

  I ran back with the knife and sawed at the ropes until they were severed, and Lula collapsed into my arms. She was almost twice my size, but somehow I dragged her inert, bloodied body through the window. My instincts were to hide and protect. Stephanie Plum, mother cat. I heard the sirens wailing from far away, getting closer and closer, and then the police were pounding on my door. I don't remember letting them in, but obviously I did. A uniformed cop took me aside, into the kitchen, and sat me down on a chair. A medic followed.

  “What happened?” the cop asked.

  “I found her on the fire escape,” I said. “I opened the curtains and there she was.” My teeth were chattering, and my heart was still racing in my chest. I gulped in air. “She was tied to keep her up, and I cut her down and dragged her through the window.”

  I could hear the medics shouting to bring the stretcher. There was the sound of my bed being shoved aside to make room. I was afraid to ask if Lula was alive. I sucked in more air and clenched my hands in my lap until my knuckles turned white and my nails dug into the fleshy part of my palm.

  “Does Lula live here?” the cop wanted to know.

  “No. I live here. I don't know where Lula lives. I don't even know her last name.”

  The phone rang and I automatically reached out to answer.

  The caller's voice whispered from the handset. “Did you get my present, Stephanie?”

  It was as if the earth suddenly stopped rotating. There was a moment of feeling off balance, and then everything snapped into focus. I pushed the record button on the machine and turned up the volume so everyone could hear.

  “Wha
t present are you talking about?” I asked.

  “You know what present. I saw you find her. Saw you drag her back through the window. I've been watching you. I could have come and got you last night when you were asleep, but I wanted you to see Lula. I wanted you to see what I can do to a woman, so you know what to expect. I want you to think about it, bitch. I want you to think about how it's going to hurt, and how you're going to beg.”

  “You like to hurt women?” I asked, control beginning to return.

  “Sometimes women need to be hurt.”

  I decided to take a winger. “How about Carmen Sanchez? Did you hurt her?”

  “Not as good as I'm going to hurt you. I have special things planned for you.”

  “No time like the present,” I said, and I was shocked to realize that I meant it. There was no bravado in the statement. I was in the grip of cold, hard, sphincter-cramping fury.

  “The cops are there now, bitch. I'm not coming when the cops are there. I'm going to get you when you're alone and you're not expecting me. I'm going to make sure we have lots of time together.”

  The connection was broken.

  “Jesus Christ,” the uniform said. “He's crazy.”

  “Do you know who that was?”

  “I'm afraid to guess.”

  I popped the tape out of the machine, and wrote my name and the date on the label. My hand was shaking so badly the writing was barely readable.

  A handheld radio crackled from the living room. I could hear the murmur of voices in my bedroom. The voices were less frantic, and the rhythm of activity had become more orderly. I looked at myself and realized I was covered with Lula's blood. It had soaked into my shirt and shorts, and it was coagulating on my hands and the bottoms of my bare feet. The phone was tacky with blood smears, as was the floor and the counter.

  The cop and the medic exchanged glances. “Maybe you should get that blood washed off,” the medic said. “How about we get you into the shower real fast.”

  I looked in at Lula on my way to the bathroom. They were getting ready to move her out. She was strapped to the stretcher, covered with a sheet and blanket. She was hooked up to an IV. “How is she?” I asked.

  A squad member tugged the stretcher forward. “Alive,” he said.

  The medics were gone when I got out of the shower. Two uniformed cops had stayed, and the one who'd talked to me in the kitchen was conferring with a PC in the living room, the two of them going over notes. I dressed quickly and left my hair to dry on its own. I was anxious to make my statement and be done with it. I wanted to get to the hospital to see about Lula.

  The PC's name was Dorsey. I'd seen him before. Probably at Pino's. He was medium height, medium build, and looked to be in his late forties. He was in shirtsleeves and slacks and penny loafers. I could see my recorder tape tucked into his shirt pocket. Exhibit A. I told him about the incident in the gym, omitting Morelli's name, leaving Dorsey to think the identity of my rescuer was unknown. If the police wanted to believe Morelli'd left town, that was fine with me. I still had hopes of bringing him in and collecting my money.

  Dorsey took a lot of notes and looked knowingly at the patrolman. He didn't seem surprised. I suppose if you're a cop long enough, nothing surprises you.

  When they left I shut off the coffeemaker, closed and locked the bedroom window, grabbed my pocketbook, and squared my shoulders to what I knew awaited me in the hall. I was going to have to make my way past Mrs. Orbach, Mr. Grossman, Mrs. Feinsmith, Mr. Wolesky, and who knows how many others. They would want to know the details, and I wasn't up to imparting details.

  I put my head down, shouted apologies, and went straight for the stairs, knowing that would slow them. I bolted out of the building and ran to the Cherokee.

  I took St. James to Olden and rut across Trenton to Stark. It would have been easier to go straight to St. Francis Hospital, but I wanted to get Jackie. I barreled down Stark and passed the gym without a sideways glance. As far as I was concerned, Ramirez was finished. If he slipped through the loopholes of the law on this one, I'd get him myself. I'd cut off his dick with a carving knife if I had to.

  Jackie was just corning out of the Corner Bar, where I imagine she'd had breakfast. I screeched to a stop and half hung out the door. “Get in!” I yelled to Jackie.

  “What's this about?”

  “Lulu's in the hospital. Ramirez got to her.”

  “Oh God.” she wailed. “I was so afraid. I knew something was wrong. How bad is it?”

  “I honestly don't know. I found her on my fire escape just now. Ramirez had left her tied there as a message to me. She's unconscious.”

  “I was there when he come for her. She didn't want to go, but you don't say no to Bonito Ramirez. Her old man would've beat her bloody.”

  “Yeah. Well, she's been beaten bloody anyway.”

  I found a parking place on Hamilton one block from the emergency entrance. I set the alarm, and Jackie and I took off at a trot. She had about two hundred pounds on the hoof, and she wasn't even breathing hard when we pushed through the double glass doors. I guess humping all day keeps you in shape.

  “A woman named Lula was just brought in by ambulance,” I told the clerk.

  The clerk looked at me, and then she looked at Jackie. Jackie was dressed in poison green shorts with half her ass hanging out, matching rubber sandals, and a hot pink tank top. “Are you family?” she asked Jackie.

  “Lulu don't got any family here.”

  “We need someone to fill out forms.”

  “I guess I could do that,” she said.

  When we were done with the forms, we were told to sit and wait. We did this in silence, aimlessly thumbing through torn magazines, watching with inhuman detachment as one tragedy after another rolled down the hall. After a half hour I asked about Lula and was told she was in X ray. How long would she be in X ray? I asked. The clerk didn't know. It would be a while, but then a doctor would come out to talk to us. I reported this to Jackie.

  “Hunh,” she said. “I bet.”

  I was a quart down on caffeine, so I left Jackie to wait and went in search of the cafeteria. I was told to follow the footprints on the floor, and darned if they didn't bring me to food. I loaded a take-out carton with pastries, two large coffees, and added two oranges just in case Jackie and I felt the need to be healthy. I thought it was unlikely, but I figured it was like wearing clean panties in case of a car crash. It never hurt to be prepared.

  An hour later, we saw the doctor.

  He looked at me, and he looked at Jackie. Jackie hiked up her top and tugged at her shorts. It was a futile gesture.

  “Are you family?” he asked Jackie.

  “I guess so,” Jackie said. “What's the word?”

  “The prognosis is guarded but hopeful. She's lost a lot of blood, and she's suffered some head trauma. She has multiple wounds that need suturing. She's being taken to surgery. It will probably be a while before she's brought to her room. You might want to go out and come back in an hour or two.”

  “I'm not going nowhere,” Jackie said.

  Two hours dragged by without further information. We'd eaten all the pastries and were forced to eat the oranges.

  “Don't like this,” Jackie said. “Don't like being cooped up in institutions. Whole fucking place smells like canned green beans.”

  “Spend much time in institutions, have you?”

  “My share.”

  She didn't seem inclined to elaborate, and I didn't actually want to know anyway. I fidgeted in my chair, looked around the room, and spotted Dorsey talking to the clerk. He was nodding, getting answers to questions. The clerk pointed to Jackie and me, and Dorsey ambled over.

  “How's Lula?” he asked. “Any news?”

  “She's in surgery.”

  He settled himself into the seat next to me. “We haven't been able to pick up Ramirez yet. You have any idea where he might be? He say anything interesting before you started recording?”

  “H
e said he was watching me pull Lula through the window. And he knew the police were in my apartment. He must have been close.”

 
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