Seven up, p.2
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       Seven Up, p.2

         Part #7 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich  


  “What's going on?” Lula called up.

  “DeChooch isn't here.”

  “Say what?”

  Lula and I searched the house. We looked under beds and in closets. We looked in the cellar and the garage. DeChooch's closets were filled with clothes. His toothbrush was still in the bathroom. His car was asleep in the garage.

  “This is too weird,” Lula said. “How could he have gotten past us? We were sitting right in his front room. We would have seen him sneak by.”

  We were standing in the backyard, and I cut my eyes to the second story. The bathroom window was directly above the flat roof that sheltered the back door leading from the kitchen to the yard. Just like my parents' house. When I was in high school I used to sneak out that window late at night so I could hang with my friends. My sister, Valerie, the perfect daughter, never did such a thing.

  “He could have gone out the window,” I said. “He wouldn't have had a far drop either because he's got those two garbage cans pushed against the house.”

  “Well, he's got some nerve acting all old and feeble and goddamned depressed, and then soon as we turn our backs he goes and jumps out a window. I'm telling you, you can't trust nobody anymore.”

  “He snookered us.”

  “Damn skippy.”

  I went into the house, searched the kitchen, and with minimum effort found a set of keys. I tried one of the keys on the front door. Perfect. I locked the house and pocketed the keys. It's been my experience that sooner or later, everyone comes home. And when DeChooch does come home he might decide to shut the house up tight.

  I knocked on Angela's door and asked if she wasn't by any chance harboring Eddie DeChooch. She claimed she hadn't seen him all day, so I left her with my card and gave instructions to call me if DeChooch turned up.

  Lula and I got into the CR-V, I cranked the engine over, and an image of DeChooch's keys floated to the forefront of my brain. House key, car key . . . and a third key. I took the key ring out of my purse and looked at it.

  “What do you suppose this third key is for?” I asked Lula.

  “It's one of them Yale locks that you put on gym lockers and sheds and stuff.”

  “Do you remember seeing a shed?”

  “I don't know. I guess I wasn't paying attention to that. You think he could be hiding in a shed along with the lawn mower and weed whacker?”

  I shut the engine off and we got out of the car and returned to the backyard.

  “I don't see a shed,” Lula said. “I see a couple garbage cans and a garage.”

  We peered into the dim garage for the second time.

  “Nothing in there but the car,” Lula said.

  We walked around the garage to the rear and found the shed.

  “Yeah, but it's locked,” Lula said. "He'd have to be Houdini to get himself in there and then lock it from the outside. And on top of that this shed smells real bad.

  I shoved the key in the lock and the lock popped open.

  “Hold on,” Lula said. “I vote we leave this shed locked. I don't want to know what's smelling up this shed.”

  I yanked at the handle, the door to the shed swung wide, and Loretta Ricci stared out at us, mouth open, eves unseeing, five bullet holes in the middle of her chest. She was sitting on the dirt floor, her back propped against the corrugated metal wall, her hair white from a dose of lime that wasn't doing much to stop the destruction that follows death.

  “Shit, that ain't no ironing board,” Lula said.

  I slammed the door shut, snapped the lock in place, and put some distance between me and the shed. I told myself I wasn't going to throw up, and took a bunch of deep breaths. “You were right,” I said. “I shouldn't have opened the shed.”

  “You never listen to me. Now look what we got. All on account of you had to be nosy. Not only that, but I know what's gonna happen next. You're gonna call the police, and we're gonna be tied up all day. If you had any sense you'd pretend you didn't see nothing, and we'd go get some fries and a Coke. I could really use some fries and a Coke.”

  I handed her the keys to my car. “Get yourself some food, but make sure you're back in a half hour. I swear, if you abandon me I'll send the police out after you.”

  “Boy, that really hurts. When did I ever abandon you?”

  “You abandon me all the time!”

  “Hunh,” Lula said.

  I flipped my cell phone open and called the police. Within minutes I could hear the blue-and-white pull up in front of the house. It was Carl Costanza and his partner, Big Dog.

  “When the call came in, I knew it had to be you,” Carl said to me. “It's been almost a month since you found a body. I knew you were due.”

  “I don't find that many bodies!”

  “Hey,” Big Dog said, “is that a Kevlar vest you're wearing?”

  “Brand new, too,” Costanza said. “Not even got any bullet holes in it.”

  Trenton cops are top of the line, but their budget isn't exactly Beverly Hills. If you're a Trenton cop you hope Santa will bring you a bulletproof vest because vests are funded primarily with miscellaneous grants and donations and don't automatically come with the badge.

  I'd removed the house key from DeChooch's key ring and had it safely tucked away in my pocket. I gave the two remaining keys to Costanza. “Loretta Ricci is in the shed. And she's not looking too good.”

  I knew Loretta Ricci by sight, but that was about it. She lived in the Burg and was widowed. I'd put her age around sixty-five. I saw her sometimes at Giovichinni's Meat Market ordering lunch meat.

  VINNIE LEANED FORWARD in his chair and narrowed his eyes at Lula and me. “What do you mean you lost DeChooch?”

  “It wasn't our fault,” Lula said. “He was sneaky.”

  “Well hell,” Vinnie said, “I wouldn't expect you to be able to catch someone who was sneaky.”

  “Hunh,” Lula said. “Your ass.”

  “Dollars to doughnuts he's at his social club,” Vinnie said.

  It used to be there were a lot of powerful social clubs in the Burg. They were powerful because numbers were run out of them. Then Jersey legalized gambling and pretty soon the local numbers industry was in the toilet. There are only a few social clubs left in the Burg now, and the members all sit around reading Modern Maturity and comparing pacemakers.

  “I don't think DeChooch is at his social club,” I told Vinnie. “We found Loretta Ricci dead in DeChooch's toolshed, and I think DeChooch is on his way to Rio.”

  FOR LACK OF something better to do I went home to my apartment. The sky was overcast and a light rain had started to fall. It was midafternoon, and I was more than a little creeped out by Loretta Ricci. I parked in the lot, pushed through the double glass doors that led to the small lobby, and took the elevator to the second floor.

  I let myself into my apartment and went straight to the flashing red light on the phone machine.

  The first message was from Joe Morelli. “Call me.” Didn't sound friendly.

  The second message was from my friend MoonMan. “Hey dude,” he said. “It's the MoonMan.” That was it. No more message.

  The third message was from my mother. “Why me?” she asked. “Why do I have to have a daughter who finds dead bodies? Where did I go wrong? Emily Beeber's daughter never finds dead bodies. Joanne Malinoski's daughter never finds dead bodies. Why me!”

  News travels fast in the Burg.

  The fourth and last message was from my mother again. “I'm making a nice chicken for supper with a pineapple upside-down cake for dessert. I'll set an extra plate in case you don't have plans.”

  My mother was playing hardball with the cake.

  My hamster, Rex, was asleep in his soup can in his cage on the kitchen counter. I tapped on the side of the cage and called hello, but Rex didn't budge. Catching up on his sleep after a hard night of running on his wheel.

  I thought about calling Morelli back and decided against it. Last time I talked to Morelli we'
d ended up yelling at each other. After spending the afternoon with Mrs. Ricci I didn't have the energy to yell at Morelli.

  I shuffled into the bedroom and flopped down on the bed to think. Thinking very often resembles napping, but the intent is different. I was in the middle of some very deep thinking when the phone rang. By the time I dragged myself out of my thinking mode there was no one left on the line, only another message from Mooner.

  “Bummer,” Mooner said. That was it. Nothing more.

  MoonMan has been known to experiment with pharmaceuticals and for the better part of his life has made no sense at all. Usually it's best to ignore MoonMan.

  I stuck my head in my refrigerator and found a jar of olives, some slimy brown lettuce, a lone bottle of beer, and an orange with blue fuzz growing on it. No pineapple upside-down cake.

  There was a pineapple upside-down cake a couple miles away at my parents' house. I checked out the waistband on my Levi's. No room to spare. Probably I didn't need the cake.

  I drank the beer and ate some olives. Not bad, but not cake. I blew out a sigh of resignation. I was going to cave. I wanted the cake.

  MY MOTHER AND my grandmother were at the door when I pulled to the curb in front of their house. My Grandmother Mazur moved in with my parents shortly after my Grandfather Mazur took his bucket of quarters to the big poker slot machine in the sky. Last month Grandma finally passed her driver's test and bought herself a red Corvette. It took her exactly five days to acquire enough speeding tickets to lose her license.

  “The chicken's on the table,” my mother said. “We were just about to sit.”

  “Lucky for you the dinner got late,” Grandma said, “on account of the phone wouldn't stop ringing. Loretta Ricci is big news.” She took her seat and shook out her napkin. “Not that I was surprised. I said to myself a while ago that Loretta was looking for trouble. She was real hot to trot, that one. Went wild after Dominic died. Man-crazy.”

  My father was at the head of the table and he looked like he wanted to shoot himself.

  “She'd just jump from one man to the next at the seniors' meeting,” Grandma said. “And I heard she was real loosey-goosey.”

  The meat was always placed in front of my father so he got first pick. I guess my mother figured if my father got right down to the task of eating he wouldn't be so inclined to jump up and strangle my grandmother.

  “How's the chicken?” my another wanted to know. “Do you think it's too dry?”

  No, everyone said, the chicken wasn't dry. The chicken was just right.

  “I saw a television show the other week about a woman like that,” Grandma said. “This woman was real sexy, and it turned out one of the men she was flirting with was an alien from outer space. And the alien took the woman up to his spaceship and did all kinds of things to her.”

  My father hunkered lower over his plateful of food and mumbled something indiscernible except for the words . . . crazy old bat.

  “What about Loretta and Eddie DeChooch?” I asked. “Do you suppose they were seeing each other?”

  “Not that I know of,” Grandma said. “From what I know, Loretta liked her men hot, and Eddie DeChooch couldn't get it up. I went out with him a couple times, and that thing of his was dead as a doorknob. No matter what I did I couldn't get nothing to happen.”

  My father looked up at Grandma, and a piece of meat fell out of his mouth.

  My mother was red-faced at the other end of the table. She sucked in some air and made the sign of the cross. “Mother of God,” she said.

  I fiddled with my fork. “If I left now I probably wouldn't get any pineapple upside-down cake, right?”

  “Not for the rest of your life,” my mother said.

  “So how did she look?” Grandma wanted to know. “What was Loretta wearing? And how was her hair done? Doris Szuch said she saw Loretta at the food store yesterday afternoon, so I'm guessing Loretta wasn't all rotted and wormy yet.”

  My father reached for the carving knife, and my mother cut him down with a steel-eyed look that said don't even think about it.

  My father's retired from the post office. He drives a cab part-time, only buys American cars, and smokes cigars out behind the garage: when my mother isn't home. I don't think my dad would actually stab Grandma Mazur with the carving knife. Still, if she choked on a chicken bone I'm not sure he'd be all that unhappy.

  “I'm looking for Eddie DeChooch,” I said to Grandma. “He's FTA. Do you have any ideas about where he might be hiding?”

  “He's friends with Ziggy Garvey and Benny Colucci. And there's his nephew Ronald.”

  “Do you think he'd leave the country?”

  “You mean because he might have put those holes in Loretta? I don't think so. He's been accused of killing people before and he never left the country. At least not that I know of.”

  “I hate this,” my mother said. “I hate having a daughter who goes out after killers. What's the matter with Vinnie for giving this case to you?” She glared at my father. “Frank, he's your side of the family. You need to talk to him. And why can't you be more like your sister, Valerie?” my mother asked me. “She's happily married with two beautiful children. She doesn't go around chasing after killers, finding dead bodies.”

  “Stephanie's almost happily married,” Grandma said. “She got engaged last month.”

  “Do you see a ring on her finger?” my mother asked.

  Everyone looked at my naked finger.

  “I don't want to talk about it,” I said.

  “I think Stephanie's got the hots for someone else,” Grandma said. “I think she's sweet on that Ranger fella.”

  My father paused with his fork plunged into a mound of potatoes. “The bounty hunter? The black guy?”

  My father was an equal opportunity bigot. He didn't go around painting swastikas on churches, and he didn't discriminate against minorities. It was just that with the possible exception of my mother, if you weren't Italian you weren't quite up to standards.

  “He's Cuban-American,” I said.

  My mother did another sign of the cross.

  Stephanie Plum 7 - Seven Up


  IT WAS DARK when I left my parents. I didn't expect Eddie DeChooch to be home, but I drove past his house anyway. Lights were blazing in the Marguchi half. The DeChooch half was lifeless. I caught a glimpse of yellow crime-scene tape still stretched across the backyard.

  There were questions I wanted to ask Mrs. Marguchi, but they'd keep. I didn't want to disturb her tonight. Her day had been bad enough. I'd catch her tomorrow, and on the way I'd stop at the office and get an address for Garvey and Colucci.

  I cruised around the block and headed for Hamilton Avenue. My apartment building is located a couple miles from the Burg. It's a sturdy, three-story chunk of brick and mortar built in the seventies with economy in mind. It doesn't come with a lot of amenities, but it has a decent super who'll do anything for a six-pack of beer, the elevator almost always works, and the rent is reasonable.

  I parked in the lot and looked up at my apartment. The lights were on. Someone was home and it wasn't me. It was probably Morelli. He had a key. I felt a rush of excitement at the thought of seeing him, quickly followed by a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. Morelli and I have known each other since we were kids, and life has never been simple between us.

  I took the stairs, trying out emotions, settling on conditionally happy. Truth is, Morelli and I are pretty sure we love each other. We're just not sure we can stand to live together for the rest of our lives. I don't especially want to marry a cop. Morelli doesn't want to marry a bounty hunter. And then there's Ranger.

  I opened the door to my apartment and found two old guys sitting on my couch, watching a ball game on television. No Morelli in sight. They both stood and smiled when I came into the room.

  “You must be Stephanie Plum,” one of the men said. “Allow me to make the introductions. I'm Benny Colucci and this is my friend and colleague, Ziggy

  “How did you get into my apartment?”

  “Your door was open.”

  “No, it wasn't.”

  The smile widened. “It was Ziggy. He's got the touch with a lock.”

  Ziggy beamed and wiggled his fingers. “I'm an old coot, but my fingers still work.”

  “I'm not crazy about people breaking into my apartment,” I said.

  Benny solemnly nodded. “I understand, but we thought in this instance it would be okay, being that we have something of a very serious nature to discuss.”

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