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One for the money, p.20
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       One for the Money, p.20

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  The guy driving the pickup stared at my lip. “Domestic quarrel?”

  “A akthident.”

  “Guess this just isn't your day.”

  “No day ith my day,” I said.

  Since the accident had been my fault, and there'd been no damage to his car, we didn't do the ritual of trading insurance information. I took one last look at the damage, shuddered violently, and slunk away, debating the value of suicide as opposed to facing Morelli.

  The phone was ringing as I came through my front door. It was Dorsey.

  “I haf an assault charge againth Ramireth,” I said. “He hit me in the mouff.”

  “Where'd this happen?”

  “Thark Threet.” I gave him the details and refused his offer to come to my apartment to get my statement. I didn't want to chance his running into Morelli. I promised I'd stop in tomorrow to complete the paperwork.

  I took a shower and had ice cream for supper. Every ten minutes I'd look out the window to see if there was any sign of Morelli in the lot. I'd parked in a far corner where the lighting was poor. If I could just get through the night, tomorrow I'd take the Cherokee to Al at the body shop and see if he could do an instant repair. I had no idea how I'd pay for it.

  I watched television until eleven and went to bed, lugging Rex's cage into the bedroom to keep me company. There'd been no phone calls from Ramirez and no sign of Morelli. I wasn't sure if I was relieved or disappointed. I had no idea if Morelli was listening, protecting me as agreed, so I slept with my defense spray, my portable phone, and my gun on the nightstand.

  My phone rang at six-thirty. It was Morelli.

  “Time to get up,” he said.

  I checked my bedside clock. “It's practically the middle of the night.”

  “You'd have been up hours ago if you had to sleep in a Nissan Sentra.”

  “What are you doing in a Sentra?”

  “I'm having the van painted a different color and the antennae removed. I've managed to 'find' a new set of plates. In the meantime, the body shop gave me a loaner. I waited until dark and then parked on Maple, just behind the lot.”

  “So you could guard my body?”

  “Mostly I didn't want to miss hearing you get undressed. What was that weird squeaking sound all night?”

  “Rex on his wheel.”

  “I thought he lived in the kitchen.”

  I didn't want Morelli to know I'd been scared and lonely, so I lied. “I cleaned the sink, and he didn't like the smell of the cleanser, so I brought him into the bedroom.”

  The silence stretched for a couple beats.

  “Translation,” Morelli said. “You were scared and lonely, and you brought Rex in for company.”

  “These are difficult times.”

  “Tell me about it.”

  “I suppose you need to get out of Trenton before Beyers returns.”

  “I suppose I do. I'm too visible in this car. I can get the van at six tonight, and then I'll be back.”

  “Catch you later.”

  “Ten-four, Captain Video.”

  I went back to bed, and two hours later I was jolted awake by the car alarm blaring away in the lot below me. I flew out of bed, rushed to the window, and threw the curtains open in time to see Morty Beyers smash the alarm to smithereens with his gun butt.

  “Beyers!” I bellowed from my open window. “What the hell do you thing you're doing?”

  “My wife left me, and she took the Escort.”

  “So?”

  “So I need a car. I was gonna rent one, and then I thought of Morelli's Jeep sitting here, and I figured it'd save me some money to use it until I tracked Mona down.”

  “Christ, Beyers, you can't just come into a lot and take someone's car! That's stealing. You're a goddamn car thief.”

  “So?”

  “Where'd you get the keys?”

  “Same place you did. Morelli's apartment. He had an extra set in his dresser.”

  “You won't get away with this.”

  “What are you gonna do, call the police?”

  “God will get you for this.”

  “Fuck God,” Beyers said, sliding behind the wheel, taking time to adjust the seat and fiddle with the radio.

  Arrogant bastard, I thought. Not only is he stealing the damn car, but he's sitting there flaunting his ability to take it. I grabbed my defense spray and bolted out the door and down the stairs. I was barefoot, wearing a Mickey Mouse nightshirt and a pair of Jockey string bikinis, and I could have cared less.

  I was through the back door with my foot on the pavement when I saw Beyers turn the key and step on the accelerator. A split second later the car exploded with a deafening blast, sending doors flying off into space like Frisbees. Flames licked up from the undercarriage and instantly consumed the Cherokee, turning it into a brilliant yellow fireball.

  I was too astonished to move. I stood open-mouthed and speechless while parts of roof and fender reversed their trajectory and clanked down to earth.

  Sirens sounded in the distance, and tenants poured from the building to stand beside me and stare at the burning Jeep. Clouds of black smoke boiled into the morning sky, and searing heat rippled across my face.

  There'd never been any possibility of saving Morty Beyers. Even if I'd immediately responded, I couldn't have gotten him out of the car. And probably he was dead from the blast, not the fire. It occurred to me that chances of this being an accident were slim. And that chances of this being meant for me were large.

  On the positive side, I didn't have to sweat Morelli finding out about yesterday's accident damage.

  I backed away from the fire and eased my way through the small crowd that had formed. I took the stairs two at a time and locked myself in my apartment. I'd carelessly left the front door wide open when I'd dashed out after Beyers, so I did a thorough search with my gun drawn. If I came on the guy who roasted Morty Beyers, I wasn't going to fool around with his neurotransmitters—I was going to go for a bullet in the gut. The gut made a nice big target.

  When I was sure my apartment was secure, I got dressed in shorts and shirt. I took a fast bathroom break and checked my appearance in the bathroom mirror. I had a purple bruise on my cheekbone and a small gash in my upper lip. Most of the swelling had gone down. As a result of the morning's fire, my complexion looked like it had been sunburned and sandblasted. My eyebrows and the hair around my face had gotten singed and stuck out in spikes about an eighth of an inch long. Very attractive. Not that I was complaining. I could have been dead and missing a few body parts that had landed in the azaleas. I laced up my Reeboks and went downstairs to take another look.

  The parking lot and adjoining streets were filled with fire trucks and police cars and ambulances. Barricades had been set up, holding the curious away from the smoldering remains of Morelli's Jeep. Oily, sooty water slicked the blacktop, and the air smelled like charred pot roast. I didn't want to pursue that train of thought. I saw Dorsey standing on the perimeter, talking to a uniform. He looked up and caught my eye and headed over.

  “I'm getting a bad feeling about this,” he said.

  “You know Morty Beyers?”

  “Yeah.”

  “He was in the Jeep.”

  “No shit. Are you sure?”

  “I was talking to him when it blew.”

  “I guess that explains your missing eyebrows. What were you talking about?”

  “Vinnie had only given me a week to bring Morelli in. My week was up, and Morty took up the hunt. We were sort of talking about Morelli.”

  “You couldn't have been talking too close or you'd be hamburger.”

  “Actually I was right about where we're standing now, and we were yelling at each other. We were sort of . . . disagreeing.”

  A uniform came over with a twisted license plate. “We found this over by the Dumpster,” he said. “You want me to run an ID?”

  I took the plate. “Don't bother. The car belongs to Morelli.”

  “Oh
boy,” Dorsey said. “I can hardly wait to hear this.”

  I figured I'd embellish the truth a little, since the police might not be up on the finer points of bounty hunterism and might not understand about commandeering. “It's like this,” I said. “I went to see Morelli's mother, and she was very upset that no one was running Joe's car. You know how bad it is for the battery to let a car sit. Well one thing led to another and next thing I'd agreed to drive the car around for her.”

  “So you've been driving Morelli's car as a favor to his mother?”

  “Yes. He'd asked her to take care of it, but she didn't have time.”

  “Very noble of you.”

  “I'm a noble person.”

  “Go on.”

  So I did. I explained about Beyers's wife leaving him, and about how he tried to steal the car, and how he made the mistake of saying “fuck God,” and then the car blew up.

  “You think God got pissed off and fried Beyers?”

  “That would be one theory.”

  “When you come to the station to complete the report on Ramirez, we might want to talk further on this.”

  I watched for a few more minutes and then went back to my apartment. I didn't especially want to be around when they scooped up the ashes that had been Morty Beyers.

  I sat in front of the television until noon, keeping my windows closed and my curtains drawn to the crime scene below. Every once in a while I'd wander into the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror to see if my eyebrows had grown back yet.

  At twelve o'clock I parted my curtains and braved a peek at the lot. The Cherokee had been removed, and only two patrolmen remained. From my window it appeared they were filling out property damage forms for the handful of cars that had been pelted with debris from the explosion.

  A morning of television had anesthetized me sufficiently that I felt ready to cope, so I took a shower and got dressed, being careful not to dwell on thoughts of death and bombings.

  I needed to go down to the police station, but I didn't have a car. I had a few dollars in my pocket. Nothing in my checking account. My credit cards were in collection. I had to make another apprehension.

  I called Connie and told her about Morty Beyers.

  “This is going to make a serious hole in Vinnie's dike,” Connie said. “Ranger's recovering from gunshot and now Morty Beyers is out of the picture. They were our two best agents.”

  “Yeah. It sure is a shame. I guess Vinnie's left with me.”

  There was a pause at the other end of the phone. “You didn't do Morty, did you?”

  “Morty sort of did himself. You have anything easy come in? I could use some fast money.”

  “I have an exhibitionist gone FTA on a $2,000 bond. He's been kicked out of three retirement homes. He's currently living in an apartment somewhere.” I could hear her shuffling through papers. “Here it is,” she said. “Ommigod, he's living in your building.”

  “What's his name?”

  “William Earling. He's in apartment 3E.”

  I grabbed my pocketbook and locked up. I took the stairs to the third floor, counted off apartments, and knocked on Earling's door. A man answered, and right off I suspected I had the right person because he was old and he was naked. “Mr. Earling?”

  “Yup. That's me. I'm in pretty good shape, huh chickie? You think I've got some fearful equipment?”

  I gave myself a mental command not to look, but my eyes strayed south of their own volition. Not only wasn't he fearful, but his doodles were wrinkled. “Yeah. You're pretty fearful,” I said. I handed him my card. “I work for Vincent Plum, your bond agent. You failed to appear for a court hearing, Mr. Earling. I need to take you downtown so you can reschedule.”

  “Damn court hearings are a waste of time,” Earling said. “I'm seventy-six years old. You think they're gonna send some seventy-six-year-old guy to prison because he flashed his stuff around?”

  I sincerely hoped so. Seeing Earling naked was enough to make me turn celibate. “I need to take you downtown. How about you go put some clothes on.”

  “I don't wear clothes. God brought me into the world naked, and that's the way I'm going out.”

  “Okay by me, but in the meantime I wish you'd get dressed.”

  “The only way I'm going with you is naked.”

  I took out my cuffs and snaped then on his wrists.

  “Police brutality. Police brutality,” he yelled.

  “Sorry to disappoint you,” I said. “I'm not a cop.”

  “Well what are you?”

  “I'm a bounty hunter.”

  “Bounty hunter brutality. Bounty hunter brutality.”

  I went to the hall closet, found a full-length raincoat, and buttoned him into it.

  “I'm not going with you,” he said, standing rigid, his hands cuffed under the coat. “You can't make me go.”

  “Listen, Grandpa,” I said, “either you go peaceably or I'll gas you and drag you out by your heels.”

  I couldn't believe I was saying this to some poor senior citizen with a snail dick. I was appalled at myself, but what the hell, it was worth $200.

  “Don't forget to lock up,” he said. “This neighborhood's going to heck in a handbasket. The keys are in the kitchen.”

  I got the keys, and one of them had a little Buick insignia on it. What a break. “One more thing,” I said. “Would you mind if I borrowed your car to take you downtown?”

  “I guess that'd be okay as long as we don't use too much gas. I'm on a fixed income, you know.”

  I buzzed Mr. Earling through in record time and took care not to run into Dorsey. I stopped at the office on the way home to pick up my check and stopped at the bank to cash it. I parked Mr. Earling's car as close to the door as possible to cut down on his streaking distance when he got out of jail. I didn't want to see any more of Mr. Earling than was absolutely unavoidable.

  I jogged upstairs and called home, cringing at the thought of what I was about to do.

  “Is Daddy out with the cab?” I asked. “I need a ride.”

  “He's off today. He's right here. Where do you need to go?”

  “An apartment complex on Route 1.” Another cringe.

  “Now?”

  “Yeah.” Very large sigh. “Now.”

  “I'm having stuffed shells tonight. Would you like some stuffed shells?”

  Hard to believe how much I wanted those stuffed shells. More than good sex, a fast car, a cool night, or eyebrows. I wanted temporary respite from adulthood. I wanted to feel unconditionally safe. I wanted my mom to cluck around me, filling my milk glass, relieving me of the most mundane responsibilities. I wanted to spend a few hours in a house cluttered with awful overstuffed furniture and oppressive cooking smells. “Stuffed shells would be good.”

  My father was at the back door in fifteen minutes. He gave a start at the sight of me.

  “We had an accident in the parking lot,” I said. “A car caught fire, and I was standing too close.” I gave him the address and asked him to stop at K-Mart on the way. Thirty minutes later he dropped me off in Morelli's parking lot.

  “Tell Mom I'll be there by six,” I said to him.

  He looked at the Nova and the case of motor oil I'd just purchased. “Maybe I should stay to make sure it runs.”

  I fed the car three cans and checked the dipstick. I gave my father an A-okay sign. He didn't seem impressed. I got behind the wheel, gave the dash a hard shot with my fist, and cranked her over. “Starts every time,” I yelled.

  My father was still impassive, and I knew he was thinking I should have bought a Buick. These indignities never befell Buicks. We pulled out of the lot together, and I waved him off on Route 1, pointing the Nova in the direction of Ye Olde Muffler Shoppe. Past the orange-peaked roof of the Howard Johnson Motel, past the Shady Grove Trailer Park, past Happy Days Kennels. Other drivers were giving me a wide berth, not daring to enter into my thundering wake. Seven miles down the road I cheered at the sight of the yellow and bl
ack muffler shop sign.

  I wore my Oakleys to hide my eyebrows, but the counterman still did a double take. I filled out the forms and gave him the keys and took a seat in the small room reserved for the parents of sick cars. Forty-five minutes later I was on my way. I only noticed the smoke when I stopped at an intersection, and the red light only blinked on occasionally. I figured that was as good as I could expect.

 
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