Hard eight, p.18
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       Hard Eight, p.18

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “No.”

  “Let's walk through their houses.”

  I PICKED MY car up at Washington's Crossing and drove it across the river. I parked in front of my parents' house and got back into Ranger's truck. We went to Dotty's house first. Ranger parked in the driveway, removed the Glock from under the dash again, and we went to the front door.

  Ranger had his hand on the doorknob and his handydandy lockpicking tool in his hand. And the door swung open. No lock picking necessary. It would appear we were coming in second in the breaking-and-entering race.

  “Stay here,” Ranger said. He stepped into the living room and did a quick survey. He walked through the rest of the house with his gun drawn. He returned to the living room and motioned me in.

  I closed and locked the door behind me. “Nobody home?”

  “No. There are drawers pulled out and papers scattered on the kitchen counter. Either someone's been through the house, or else Dotty left in a hurry.”

  “I was here after Dotty left. I didn't go into the house, but I looked in the windows and the house seemed neat. Do you think the house could have been burgled?” I knew in my heart it wasn't burglary, but one can hope.

  “Don't think the motive was burglary. There's a computer in the kid's room and a diamond engagement ring in the jewelry box in the mother's room. The television is still here. My guess is, we're not the only ones looking for Evelyn and Annie.”

  “Maybe it was Jeanne Ellen. She had a bug planted here. Maybe she came back to get her bug before she left for Puerto Rico.”

  “Jeanne Ellen isn't sloppy. She wouldn't leave the front door open, and she wouldn't leave evidence of a break-in.”

  My voice inadvertently rose an octave. “Maybe she was having a bad day? Cripes, doesn't she ever have a bad day?”

  Ranger looked at me and smiled.

  “Okay, so I'm getting a little tired of the perfect Jeanne Ellen,” I said.

  “Jeanne Ellen isn't perfect,” Ranger said. “She's just very good.” He slung an arm around my shoulders and kissed me below my ear. “Maybe we can find an area where your skills exceed Jeanne Ellen's.”

  I narrowed my eyes at him. “Did you have something in mind?”

  “Nothing I'd want to get into right now.” He pulled a pair of disposable gloves out of his pocket. “I want to do a more thorough search. She didn't take a lot with her. Most of their clothes are still here.” He moved into the bedroom and turned the computer on. He opened files that looked promising. “Nothing to help us,” he finally said, shutting the computer off.

  She didn't have caller ID, and there were no messages on her machine. Bills and shopping lists were scattered across the kitchen counter. We rifled through them, knowing it was probably wasted effort. If there had been anything good, the intruder would have taken it.

  “Now what?” I asked.

  “Now we look at Evelyn's house.”

  Uh-oh. “There's a problem with Evelyn's house. Abruzzi has someone watching it. Every time I stop by, Abruzzi shows up ten minutes later.”

  “Why would Abruzzi care that you're in Evelyn's house?”

  “Last time I ran into him he said he knew I was in it for the money, that I knew what the stakes were. And that I knew what he was trying to recover. I think Abruzzi's after something, and it's tied to Evelyn somehow. I think it's possible that Abruzzi thinks this thing is hidden in the house, and he doesn't want me snooping around.”

  “Any ideas on what it is that he's trying to recover?”

  “None. Not a clue. I've been through the house, and I didn't find anything unusual. Of course, I wasn't looking for secret hiding places. I was looking for something to direct me to Evelyn.”

  Ranger closed the front door behind us and made sure it was locked.

  The sun was low in the sky when we got to Evelyn's house. Ranger did a drive-by. “Do you know the people on this street?”

  “Almost everyone. Some I know better than others. I know the woman next door to Dotty. Linda Clark lives two houses down. The Rojacks live in the corner house. Betty and Arnold Lando live across the street. The Landos are in a rental, and I don't know the family next to them. If I was looking for a snitch, my money would be on someone in the family next to the Landos. There's an old man who always seems to be home. Sits out on the porch a lot. Looks like he used to break kneecaps for a living, about a hundred years ago.”

  Ranger parked in front of Carol Nadich's half of the house. Then we walked around the house and entered Evelyn's half through the back door. Ranger didn't have to break a window to get in. Ranger inserted a small slender tool into the lock, and ten seconds later the door was open.

  The house seemed just as I remembered. Dishes in the drain. Mail neatly stacked. Drawers closed. None of the signs of search that we'd seen in Dotty's house.

  Ranger did his usual walk-through, starting in the kitchen, eventually moving upstairs into Evelyn's room. I was following behind him when I had a sudden flashback. Kloughn telling me about Annie's drawings. Scary drawings, Kloughn had said. Bloody.

  I wandered into Annie's room and flipped pages on the pad on her desk. The first page contained a house drawing similar to the one downstairs. After that came a page of scribbles and doodles. And then the childish drawing of a man. He was laying on the ground. The ground was red. Red spurted from the man's body.

  “Hey,” I called to Ranger. “Come look at this.”

  Ranger stood beside me and stared at the drawing. He turned the page and found a second drawing with red on the ground. Two men were laying in the red. Another man pointed a gun at them. There were a lot of erasure marks around the gun. I guess guns are hard to draw.

  Ranger and I exchanged glances.

  “It could just be television,” I said.

  “It wouldn't hurt to take the pad with us, in case it isn't.”

  Ranger finished his search of Evelyn's room, moved to Annie's, and then to the bathroom. He stood hands on hips when he'd completed the search of the bathroom.

  “If there's something here, it's well hidden,” he said. “It would be easier if I knew what we were looking for.”

  We left the house the same way we came. Abruzzi wasn't waiting for us on the back porch. And Abruzzi wasn't waiting for us by Ranger's truck. I sat next to Ranger and I looked up and down the street. No sign of Abruzzi. I was almost disappointed.

  Ranger rolled the engine over, drove to my parents' house, and parked behind my car. The sun had set and the street was dark. Ranger cut his lights and turned to see me better.

  “Are you spending the night here again?”

  “Yes. My apartment's still sealed. I imagine I'll get it back tomorrow.” Then what? An involuntary shiver sent my lower back into spasm. My couch had death cooties.

  “I see you're excited about returning,” Ranger said.

  “I'll figure it out. Thanks for helping me today.”

  “I feel cheated,” Ranger said. “Usually when I'm with you a car explodes or a building burns down.”

  “Sorry to disappoint.”

  “Life is a bitch,” Ranger said. He reached out and grabbed me by my jacket sleeves, hauled me across the console, and kissed me.

  “Now you kiss me?” I said. “What was the deal when we were alone in my apartment?”

  “You had three glasses of wine, and you fell asleep.”

  “Oh yeah. Now I remember.”

  “And you went into a panic attack at the thought of sleeping with me.”

  I was sprawled across the console, wedged behind the wheel, half sitting on Ranger's lap. His lips brushed against mine when he spoke and his hands were warm against my T-shirt.

  “You weren't entirely responsible for the panic,” I told him. “It was a sort of disastrous day.”

  “Babe, you have a lot of disastrous days.”

  “You sound like Morelli.”

  “Morelli is a good guy. And he loves you.”

  “And you?”

  Ranger smiled.<
br />
  I was racked with another spine shiver.

  The porch light went on, and Grandma peered out at us from the living room window.

  “Saved by the grandma,” Ranger said, releasing me. “I'm going to wait for you to get in the house. I don't want anyone kidnapping you on my watch.”

  I opened the door and I jumped out. And I did a mental grimace because getting kidnapped and/or shot wasn't entirely off the radar screen.

  Grandma was waiting for me when I walked through the door. “Who's the guy in the cool truck?”

  “Ranger.”

  “That man is so hot,” Grandma said. “If I was twenty years younger . . .”

  “If you were twenty years younger you'd still be twenty years too old,” my father said.

  Valerie was in the kitchen, helping my mother frost cupcakes. I got a glass of milk and a cupcake, and I sat at the table. “How'd work go today?” I asked Valerie.

  “I didn't get fired.”

  “That's great. Before you know it, he'll be proposing marriage.”

  “Do you think so?”

  I slid her a sideways look. “I was joking.”

  “It could happen,” Valerie said, dropping colored sprinkles on the cupcake.

  “Valerie, you don't want to marry the first guy who comes along.”

  “Yes, I do. As long as he has a house with two bathrooms. I swear to God, I don't care if he's Jack the Ripper.”

  “I'm thinking about getting a computer so I can have cybersex,” Grandma said. “Anybody know how that works?”

  “You go into a chat room,” Valerie said. “And you meet someone. And then you type dirty suggestions to each other.”

  “That sounds like fun,” Grandma said. “How does the sex part happen?”

  “You sort of have to do the sex part yourself.”

  “I knew it was too good to be true,” Grandma said. “There's always a catch to everything.”

  IT WAS MORNING, I was last in line for the bathroom, and I was beginning to appreciate Valerie's point of view. When faced with the choices of forever living with my parents, marrying Jack the Ripper, or going home to the cootie couch, I had to admit Jack the Ripper was looking pretty good. Okay, maybe not Jack the Ripper, but certainly Doug the Dullard could be tolerated.

  I was dressed in my usual outfit of jeans and boots and a stretchy shirt. I had my hair brushed out in curls and my mascara on heavy. All my adult life I've hidden behind mascara. And if I'm really feeling insecure, I add eyeliner. Today was an eyeliner day. Plus, I painted my toenails. Bring out the heavy artillery, right? Morelli had called earlier and told me the crime scene tape was down. He'd made arrangements for a professional cleaning crew to go through the apartment, using full-strength Clorox wherever needed. He thought they'd be done around noon. For all I cared, they could be done around November.

  I was in the kitchen, having a final cup of coffee before starting my day, and Mabel appeared at the back door.

  “I just heard from Evelyn,” she said. “She called me, and she said everyone was fine. She's staying with a friend, and she said not to worry.” She put her hand to her heart. “I feel so much better. And I felt better knowing you were looking for Evelyn. It gave me peace of mind. Thank you.”

  “Did Evelyn say when she was coming home?”

  “No. She said she wouldn't be back for Steven's funeral, though. I guess there are hard feelings.”

  “Did she say where she was? Did she mention the friend's name?”

  “No. She was rushed. It sounded like she was calling from a store or a restaurant. There was a lot of noise in the background.”

  “If she calls again, tell her I'd like to talk to her.”

  “There isn't anything wrong, is there? Now that Steven's gone it seems like everything should be okay.”

  “I'd like to talk to her about her landlord.”

  “Are you interested in renting a house?”

  “I might be.” And that was the truth.

  The phone rang, and Grandma ran for it. “It's for you,” she said, holding the phone out to me. “It's Valerie.”

  “I need help,” Valerie said. “You have to get over here in a hurry.” And she hung up.

  “Gotta go,” I said. “Valerie's got a problem.”

  “She used to be so smart,” Grandma said. “And then she moved to California. Think all that California sun dried her brain up like a raisin.”

  How bad could the problem be? I thought. More chicken soup in the computer? What would Kloughn care? He had no files to lose because he had no clients.

  I pulled into the lot and parked nose first in front of Kloughn's office. I looked into the big plate glass windows but didn't see Valerie. I got out of the car, and Valerie came running from the Laundromat side.

  “Over here,” she said. “He's in the Laundromat.”

  “Who?”

  “Albert!”

  A row of turquoise plastic chairs lined the wall facing the dryers. Two old women sat side-by-side in the chairs, smoking, looking at Valerie. Taking it all in. No one else was in the room.

  “Where?” I said. “I don't see him.”

  Valerie sucked in a sob and pointed to one of the large commercial dryers. “He's in there.”

  I looked more closely. She was right. Albert Kloughn was in the dryer. He was all scrunched up with his ass to the round porthole glass door, looking like Pooh stuck in the rabbit hole.

  “Is he alive?” I asked.

  “Yes! Of course he's alive.” Valerie crept closer and knocked on the door. “At least, I think he's alive.”

  “What's he doing in there?”

  “The lady in the blue sweater thought she lost her wedding ring in the dryer. She said it was wedged into the back of the drum. So Albert went in to get it. But then somehow the door slammed shut, and we can't get it to open.”

  “Jeez. Why didn't you call the fire department or the police?”

  There was movement in the drum and a lot of muffled noise coming from Kloughn. The noise sounded like no, no, no.

  “I think he's embarrassed,” Valerie said. “I mean, how would it look? Suppose somebody took a picture, and it got in the paper? No one would ever hire him, and I'd be out of a job.”

  “No one hires him now,” I said. I tried the door. I tried pushing buttons. I looked for a safety latch. “I'm scoring a big zero here,” I said.

  “There's something wrong with that dryer,” the lady in the blue sweater said. “It's always getting stuck like that. There's something wrong with the lock. I wrote out a complaint about it last week, but nobody ever does nothing around here. The vending machine with the soap doesn't work, either.”

  “I really think we need help,” I said to Valerie. “I think we should call the police.”

  There was more frantic movement and more of the no, no, no. And then there was something that sounded like a fart coming from inside the dryer.

  Valerie and I took a step back.

  “I think he's nervous,” Valerie said.

  Probably there was some sort of door release on the inside, but Kloughn was wedged in and couldn't turn to face the latch.

  I fished around in the bottom of my bag and found some change. I dropped a quarter into the slot, turned the heat down to low, and started the dryer tumbling.

  Kloughn's mumbling turned to shrieking, and Kloughn bounced around some, but for the most part he seemed fairly stable. After five minutes the dryer stopped tumbling. You don't get a heck of a lot for a quarter these days.

  The door opened easy as anything, and Valerie and I pulled Kloughn out and stood him up. His hair was all fluffy. The kind of fluff you see on a baby robin. He was warm and smelled nice, like fresh ironing. His face was red, and his eyes were glassy.

  “I think I farted,” he said.

  “You know what?” the lady in the blue sweater said. “I found my ring. It wasn't in the dryer after all. I put it in my pocket and forgot.”

  “That's nice,” Kloughn
said, his eyes unfocused, a little drool at the corner of his mouth.

  Valerie and I had him propped up by his armpits.

  “We're going to the office now,” I said to Kloughn. “Try walking.”

  “Everything's still spinning. I'm out of the machine, right? I'm just dizzy, right? I can still hear the motor. I've got the motor in my head.” Kloughn moved his legs like Frankenstein's monster. “I can't feel my feet,” he said. “My feet fell asleep.”

 
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