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One for the money, p.18
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       One for the Money, p.18

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “Jamaican gang members. Striker is the parent posse, based in Philly. It's got its finger in every drug deal in Trenton. Striker makes the mob look like a bunch of pussies. They're bringing in shit faster than they can sell it, and we can't figure out how they get it here. We had twelve deaths from heroin overdose this summer. The stuff is so available the dealers aren't bothering to cut it down to the standard.”

  “You think Carmen had information on Striker?”

  Morelli stared at me for a few beats. “No,” he finally said. “I think she had something to tell me about Ramirez. She probably picked something up while she was with him.”

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  11

  MY PHONE RANG AT SEVEN A.M. The machine got it, and I recognized Morelli's voice. “Rise and shine, Badass,” he said. “I'll be at your door in ten minutes to install equipment. Put the coffeepot on.”

  I started the coffee, brushed my teeth, and pulled on running shorts and a shirt. Morelli arrived five minutes early, carrying a toolbox. His short-sleeved shirt had an official-looking patch on the pocket that suggested he worked for Long's Service.

  “What's Long's Service?” I asked.

  “It's anything you want it to be.”

  'Ah hah,“ I said. ”A disguise."

  He tossed his shades onto my kitchen counter and headed for the coffee. “People don't notice repairmen. They remember the color of the uniform and that's it. And if you do it right, a uniform'll get you into almost any building.”

  I poured myself coffee and dialed the hospital for a progress report on Lula. I was told she was in stable condition and had been moved out of ICU.

  “You need to talk to her,” Morelli said. “Make sure she presses charges. They picked Ramirez up last night and questioned him for aggravated sexual assault. He's out already. Released on his own recognizance.”

  He put his coffee down, opened the toolbox, and took out a small screwdriver and two plates for covering electrical outlets. “These look like ordinary wall plugs,” he said, “but they have listening devices built in. I like to use them because they don't require battery replacement. They run off your wires. They're very dependable.”

  He took the plate off my hall outlet and clamped off wires, working with rubber-tipped pliers. “I have the ability to listen and record from the van. If Ramirez breaks in, or if he shows up at your door, you're going to have to go with your instincts. If you think you can engage him in conversation and pull information out of him without endangering yourself, you should give it a shot.”

  He finished up in the foyer and moved on to the bedroom, repeating the procedure. “Two things you need to remember. If you play the radio, I can't hear what's going on up here. And if I have to break in, it's most likely going to be through your bedroom window. So leave your curtains closed to give me some cover.”

  “You think it'll come to that?”

  “I hope not. Try to get Ramirez to talk on the phone. And remember to record.” He put the screwdriver back in the box and took out a roll of surgical tape and a small plastic case about the size of a pack of gum. “This is a miniature body transmitter. It's got two nine-volt lithium batteries in it, which gives you fifteen hours of usable operating time. It has an external electric microphone, it weighs seven ounces, and it costs about $1200. Don't lose it and don't wear it in the shower.”

  “Maybe Ramirez will be on good behavior now that he's been charged with assault.”

  “I'm not sure Ramirez knows good from bad.”

  “What's the plan for the day?”

  “I thought we'd put you back on Stark Street. Now that you don't have to worry about driving me crazy, you can concentrate on driving Ramirez crazy. Push him into making another move.”

  “Gosh, Stark Street. My favorite place. What am I supposed to do there?”

  “Stroll around and look sexy, ask annoying questions, in general get on everyone's nerves. All those things that come naturally to you.”

  “You know Jimmy Alpha?”

  “Everybody knows Jimmy Alpha.”

  “What do you think of him?”

  “Mixed feelings. He's always been an okay guy in my dealings with him. And I used to think he was a great manager. He did all the right things for Ramirez. Got him the right fights. Got him good trainers.” Morelli topped his coffee. “Guys like Jimmy Alpha spend their whole life hoping to get someone the caliber of Ramirez. Most of them never even come close. Managing Ramirez is like holding the winning ticket to the million-dollar lottery . . . only better because Ramirez will keep paying off. Ramirez is a gold mine. Unfortunately, Ramirez is also fucking nuts, and Alpha is caught between a rock and a hard spot.”

  “That was my opinion, too. I guess holding that winning ticket would tempt a person to turn a blind eye to some of Ramirez's personality faults.”

  “Especially now when they're just starting to make big money. Alpha supported Ramirez for years while he was just a punk kid. Now Ramirez has the title and has signed a contract for televised fights. He's literally worth millions to Alpha in future payoffs.”

  “So your opinion of Alpha is tarnished.”

  “I think Alpha is criminally irresponsible.” He looked at his watch. “Ramirez does road work first thing in the morning, then he eats breakfast at the luncheonette across from the gym. After breakfast he works out and usually he stays at it until four.”

  “That's a lot of training.”

  “It's all half-assed. If he had to fight anybody decent he'd be in trouble. His last two opponents have been handpicked losers. He has a fight in three weeks with another bum. After that he'll start to get serious for his fight with Lionel Reesey.”

  “You know a lot about boxing.”

  “Boxing is the ultimate sport. Man against man. Primal combat. It's like sex . . . puts you in touch with the beast.”

  I made a strangled sound in the back of my throat.

  He selected an orange from the bowl of fruit on the counter. “You're just pissed off because you can't remember the last time you saw the beast.”

  “I see the beast plenty, thank you.”

  “Honey, you don't see the beast at all. I've been asking around. You have no social life.”

  I gave him a stiff middle finger. “Oh yeah, well social life this.”

  Morelli grinned. “You're damn cute when you act stupid. Any time you want me to unleash the beast, you just let me know.”

  That did it. I was going to gas him. I might not turn him in, but I'd enjoy watching him pass out and throw up.

  “I have to split,” Morelli said. “One of your neighbors saw me come in. I wouldn't want to soil your reputation by staying too long. You should come onto Stark Street around noon and strut around for an hour or two. Wear your transmitter. I'll be watching and listening.”

  I had the morning to kill, so I went out for a run. It wasn't any easier, but at least Eddie Gazarra didn't show up and tell me I looked like death warmed over. I ate breakfast, took a long shower, and planned how I was going to spend my money after I bagged Morelli.

  I dressed in strappy sandals, a tight black knit miniskirt, and a stretchy red top with a low scoop neck that showed as much cleavage as was possible, given my bra size. I did the mousse and the spray thing with my hair so that I had a lot of it. I lined my eyes in midnight blue, gunked them up with mascara, painted my mouth whore red, and hung the biggest, brassiest earrings I owned from my lobes. I lacquered my nails to match my lips and checked myself out in the mirror.

  Damned if I didn't make a good slut.

  It was eleven o'clock. A little early, but I wanted to get this strutting around over with so I could visit Lula. After Lula I figured I'd do some shooting and then go home and wait for my phone to ring.

  I parked a block from the gym and started down the street with my pocketbook hung from my shoulder and my hand wrapped around the Sure Guard. I'd discovered that the transmitter showed under the stretchy top, so I had it snug inside my
bikini underpants. Eat your heart out, Morelli.

  The van was parked almost directly across from the gym. Jackie stood between me and the van. She looked even more sullen than usual.

  “How's Lula?” I asked. “Have you seen her today?”

  “They don't have no visiting hours in the morning. I don't got time to see her anyway. I gotta earn a living, you know.”

  “The hospital said her condition was stable.”

  “Yeah. They got her in a regular room. She gotta stay there awhile on account of she's still bleeding inside, but I think she'll be okay.”

  “She have a safe place to stay when she gets out?”

  “Ain't no place gonna be safe for Lula to stay when she gets out unless she get smart. She gonna be telling the police some white motherfucker cut her.”

  I glanced down the street at the van and felt Morelli's telepathic grunt of exasperation. “Someone's got to stop Ramirez.”

  “Ain't gonna be Lula,” Jackie said. “What kind of witness you think she gonna make, anyway? You think people gonna believe a whore? They gonna say she got what she deserved and probably her old man beat her and leave her for you to see. Maybe they say you been doing some whoring and not paying the price and this be a lesson to you.”

  “Have you seen Ramirez today? Is he in the gym?”

  “Don't know. These eyes don't see Ramirez. He the invisible man far as I'm concerned.”

  I'd expected as much from Jackie. And she was probably right about Lula on the witness stand. Ramirez would hire the best defense lawyer in the state, and he wouldn't even have to work up a sweat to discredit Lula.

  I moved on down the street. Has anyone seen Carmen Sanchez? I asked. Is it true she was seen with Benito Ramirez the night Ziggy Kulesza was shot?

  No one had seen her. No one knew anything about her and Ramirez.

  I paraded around for another hour and capped the effort with a trip across the street to lay some grief at Jimmy Alpha's feet. I didn't barge into his office this time. I waited patiently while his secretary announced me.

  He didn't seem surprised. Probably he'd been watching from his window. He had dark circles under his eyes, the kind a person gets from sleepless nights and problems with no solutions. I stood in front of his desk, and we stared at each other for a full minute without talking.

  “You know about Lula?” I asked him.

  Alpha nodded.

  “He almost killed her, Jimmy. He cut her and beat her and left her tied to my fire escape. Then he called and asked me if I'd received his present and told me I could look forward to an even worse fate.”

  Alpha's head was nodding again. This time it was nodding “no” in denial. “I talked to him,” Alpha said. “Benito admits he spent some time with Lula, and maybe he got a little rough, but he said that was it. He said someone must have got to her after him. He says someone's trying to make him look bad.”

  “I talked to him on the phone. I know what I heard. I have it on tape.”

  “He swears it wasn't him.”

  “And you believe him?”

  “I know he goes a little crazy with women. Got this tough-guy macho attitude. Got this thing about being disrespected. But I can't see him hanging a woman on a fire escape. I can't see him making that phone call. I know he's not Einstein, but I just can't see him being that dumb.”

  “He's not dumb, Jimmy. He's sick. He's done terrible things.”

  He ran his hand through his hair. “I don't know. Maybe you're right. Look, do me a favor and stay away from Stark Street for a while. The cops are going to investigate what happened to Lula. Whatever they find . . . I'm going to have to live with. In the meantime, I've got to get Benito ready to fight. He's going up against Tommy Clark in three weeks. Clark isn't much of a threat, but you have to take these things seriously all the same. The fans buy a ticket, they deserve a fight. I'm afraid Benito sees you, he gets all stirred up, you know? It's hard enough to get him to train . . .”

  It was about forty degrees in his office, but Alpha had dark stains under his armpits. If I was in his place I'd be sweating, too. He was watching his dream turn into a nightmare, and he didn't have the guts to face up.

  I told him I had a job to do and couldn't stay away from Stark Street. I let myself out and walked down the single flight of stairs. I sat on the bottom step and talked to my crotch. “Damn,” I said. “That was fucking depressing.”

  Across the street, Morelli was listening in his van. I couldn't imagine what he was thinking.

  * * * *

  MORELLI KNOCKED ON MY DOOR at ten-thirty that night. He had a six-pack and a pizza and a portable TV tucked under his arm. He was out of uniform, back to wearing jeans and a navy T-shirt.

  “Another day in that van, and I might be glad to go to jail,” he said.

  “Is that a Pino's pizza?”

  “Is there any other kind?”

  “How'd you get it?”

  “Pino delivers to felons.” He looked around. “Where's your cable hookup?”

  “In the living room.”

  He plugged the TV in, set the pizza and the beer on the floor, and hit the remote. “You get any phone calls?”

  “Nothing.”

  He opened a beer. “It's early yet. Ramirez does his best work at night.”

  “I talked to Lula. She's not going to testify.”

  “Big surprise.”

  I sat on the floor next to the pizza box. “Did you hear the conversation with Jimmy Alpha?”

  “Yeah, I heard it. What the hell kind of outfit were you supposed to be wearing?”

  “It was my slut outfit. I wanted to speed things up.”

  “Christ, you had guys running their cars up on the curb. And where did you hide the mike? It wasn't under that top. I'd have seen Scotch tape under that top.”

  “I stuck it in my underpants.”

  “Dang,” Morelli said. “When I get it back I'm going to have it bronzed.”

  I popped open a beer and helped myself to a piece of pizza. “What do you make of Alpha? You think he could be pushed into testifying against Ramirez?”

  Morelli flipped through the channels, clicked onto a ballgame, and watched it for a few seconds. “Depends how much he knows. If he's got his head deep in the sand, he's not going to have hard facts. Dorsey paid him a visit after you left, and he got less than you did.”

  “You have Alpha's office bugged?”

  “No. Bar talk at Pino's.”

  There was one piece of pizza left. We both eyeballed it.

  “It'll go straight to your hips,” Morelli said.

  He was right, but I took it anyway.

  I kicked him out a little after one and dragged myself to bed. I slept through the night, and in the morning there were no messages on my machine. I was about to start coffee when the car alarm went off in the lot below. I grabbed my keys and ran from my apartment, taking the steps three at a time. The driver's door was open when I got to the Jeep. The alarm was wailing away. I deactivated and reset the alarm, locked the car, and returned to my apartment.

  Morelli was in the kitchen, and I could tell the effort to stay calm was jacking his blood pressure into the red zone.

  “I didn't want anyone to steal your car,” I said. “So I had an alarm installed.”

  “It wasn't 'anyone' you were worried about. It was me. You had a goddamn alarm installed in my goddamn car so I couldn't snatch it out from under you!”

  “It worked, too. What were you doing in our car?”

  “It's not our car. It's my car. I'm allowing you to drive it. I was going to get some breakfast.”

  “Why didn't you take the van?”

  “Because I wanted to drive my car. I swear, when this mess gets cleared up, I'm moving to Alaska. I don't care what sort of sacrifice I have to make, I'm putting miles between us, because if I stay I'll strangle you, and they'll get me for murder one.”

  “Jesus, Morelli, you sound like you have PMS. You have to learn to lighten up a littl
e. It's just a car alarm. You should be thanking me. I had it installed with my own money.”

  “Well shit, what was I thinking of?”

  “You're under a lot of strain lately.”

  There was a knock on the door, and we both jumped.

  Morelli beat me to the peephole. He stepped back several paces and pulled me with him. “It's Morty Beyers,” he said.

  There was another knock on the door.

  “He can't have you,” I said. “You're mine, and I'm not sharing.”

 
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