Hard eight, p.20
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       Hard Eight, p.20

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “It was just a regular car. Blue, I think.” She looked from Ranger to me. “Is something wrong?”

  “The one woman, Dotty's friend, has had some bad luck, and we're trying to help her straighten things out,” I said.

  The third woman lived in an apartment building in New Brunswick. We drove through the underground garage, methodically going up and down rows, looking for Dotty's blue Honda or Evelyn's gray Sentra. We scored a goose egg on that, so we parked and took the elevator to the sixth floor. We knocked on Pauline Wood's door and got no answer. We tried neighboring apartments, but no one responded. Ranger knocked one last time on Pauline's door and then let himself in. I stayed outside doing lookout. Five minutes later, Ranger was back in the hall, Pauline's door locked behind him.

  “The apartment was clean,” he said. “Nothing to indicate Dotty was there. No forwarding address for her displayed in a prominent place.”

  We left the parking garage and drove through town on our way to Highland Park. New Brunswick is a college town with Rutgers at the one end and Douglass College at the other. I graduated from Douglass without distinction. I was in the top ninety-eight percent of my class and damn glad to be there. I slept in the library and daydreamed my way through history lecture. I failed math twice, never fully grasping probability theory. I mean, first off, who cares if you pick a black ball or a white ball out of the bag? And second, if you're bent over about the color, don't leave it to chance. Look in the damn bag and pick the color you want.

  By the time I reached college age, I'd given up all hope of flying like Superman, but I was never able to develop a burning desire for an alternative occupation. When I was a kid I read Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics. Uncle Scrooge was always going off to exotic places in search of gold. After Scrooge got the gold, he'd take it back to his money bin and push his loose change around with a bulldozer. Now this was my idea of a good job. Go on an adventure. Bring back gold. Push it around with a bulldozer. How fun is this? So you can possibly see the reason for my lack of motivation to get grades. I mean, do you really need good grades to drive a bulldozer?

  “I went to college here,” I said to Ranger. “It's been a bunch of years, but I still feel like a student when I ride through town.”

  “Were you a good student?”

  “I was a terrible student. Somehow the state managed to educate me in spite of myself. Did you go to college?”

  “Rutgers, Newark. Joined the army after two years.”

  When I first met Ranger I would have been surprised by this. Now, nothing surprised me about Ranger.

  “The last woman on the list should be at work, but her husband should be at home,” Ranger said. “He works food service for the university and goes in at four. The guy's name is Harold Bailey. His wife's name is Louise.”

  We wound our way through a neighborhood of older homes. They were mostly two-story clapboards with the front porch stretching the width of the house and a single detached garage to the rear. They weren't big, and they weren't small. Many had been badly renovated with fake brick front or add-on front rooms made by enclosing the porch.

  We parked and approached the Bailey house. Ranger rang the bell and, just as expected, a man answered the door. Ranger introduced himself and handed the man the photographs.

  “We're looking for Evelyn Soder,” Ranger said. “We were hoping you might be able to help. Have you seen any of these people in the last couple days?”

  “Why are you looking for this Soder woman?”

  “Her ex-husband has been killed. Evelyn has been moving around lately, and her grandmother has lost touch with her. She'd like to make sure Evelyn knows about the death.”

  “She was here with Dotty last night. They came just as I was leaving. They stayed overnight and left in the morning. I didn't see much of them. And I don't know where they were off to today. They were taking the little girls on some sort of field trip. Historical places. That sort of thing. Louise might know more. You could try reaching her at work.”

  We returned to the car, and Ranger took us out of the neighborhood.

  “We're always one step behind,” I said.

  “That's the way it is with missing children. I've worked a lot of parental abduction cases, and they move around. Usually they go farther from home. And usually they stay in one place longer than a night. But the pattern is the same. By the time information on them comes in, they're usually gone.”

  “How do you catch them?”

  “Persistence and patience. If you stick with it long enough, eventually you win. Sometimes it takes years.”

  “Omigod, I haven't got years. I'll have to hide in the Bat Cave.”

  “Once you go into the Bat Cave it's forever, babe.”

  Eeek.

  “Try calling the women,” Ranger said. “The work number is in the file.”

  Barbara Ann and Kathy were cautious. Both admitted that they'd seen Dotty and Evelyn and knew they were also visiting Louise. Both insisted they didn't know where the women were going next. I suspected they were telling the truth. I thought it was possible Evelyn and Dotty were only thinking a day ahead. My best guess was that they'd intended to camp and for some reason that hadn't worked out. Now they were scrambling to stay hidden.

  Pauline had been entirely out of the loop.

  Louise was the most talkative, probably because she was also the most worried.

  “They would only stay the one night,” she said. “I know what you're telling me about Evelyn's husband is true, but I know there's more. The kids were exhausted and wanted to go home. Evelyn and Dotty looked exhausted, too. They wouldn't talk about it, but I know they were running away from something. I was thinking it was Evelyn's husband, but I guess that's not it. Holy Mother of God,” she said. “You don't suppose they killed him!”

  “No,” I said, “he was killed by a rabbit. One more thing, did you see the car they were driving? Were they all in one car?”

  “It was Dotty's car. The blue Honda. Apparently, Evelyn had a car but it was stolen when they left it at a campground. She said they went out grocery shopping and when they came back the car and everything they owned was gone. Can you imagine?”

  I gave her my home phone number and asked her to call if she thought of anything that might be helpful.

  “Dead end,” I said to Ranger. “But I know why they vacated the campground.” I told him about the stolen car.

  “The more likely scenario is that Dotty and Evelyn came back after shopping, saw a strange car parked next to Evelyn's, and they abandoned everything,” Ranger said.

  “And when they didn't return, Abruzzi cleaned them out.”

  “It's what I'd do,” Ranger said. “Anything to slow them down and make things difficult.”

  We were driving through Highland Park, approaching the bridge over the Raritan River. We were out of leads again, but at least we'd gotten some information. We didn't know where Evelyn was now, but we knew where she'd been. And we knew she no longer had the Sentra.

  Ranger stopped for a light and turned to me. “When was the last time you shot a gun?” he asked.

  “A couple days ago. I shot a snake. Is this a trick question?”

  “This is a serious question. You should be carrying a gun. And you should feel comfortable shooting it.”

  “Okay, I promise, next time I go out, I'll take my gun with me.”

  “You'll put bullets in it?”

  I hesitated.

  Ranger glanced over at me. “You will put bullets in it.”

  “Sure,” I said.

  He reached out, opened the glove compartment, and took out a gun. It was a Smith & Wesson .38 five-shot special. It looked a lot like my gun.

  “I stopped by your apartment this morning and picked this up for you,” Ranger said. “I found it in the cookie jar.”

  “Tough guys always keep their gun in the cookie jar.”

  “Name one.”

  “Rockford.”

  Ranger grinned.
“I stand corrected.” He took a road that ran along the river, and after a half mile he turned into a parking area that led to a large warehouse-type building.

  “What's this?” I asked.

  “Shooting gallery. You're going to practice using your gun.”

  I knew this was necessary, but I hated the noise, and I hated the mechanics of the gun. I didn't like the idea that I was holding a device that essentially created small explosions. I was always sure something would go wrong, and I'd blow my thumb clear off my hand.

  Ranger got me outfitted with ear protectors and goggles. He laid out the rounds and set the gun on the shelf in my assigned space. He brought the paper target in to twenty feet. If I was ever going to shoot someone, chances were good they'd be close to me.

  “Okay, Tex,” he said, “let's see what you've got.”

  I loaded and fired.

  “Good,” Ranger said. “Let's try it with your eyes open this time.”

  He adjusted my grip and my stance. I tried again.

  “Better,” Ranger said.

  I practiced until my arm ached, and I couldn't pull the trigger anymore.

  “How do you feel about the gun now?” Ranger asked.

  “I feel more comfortable. But I still don't like it.”

  “You don't have to like it.”

  It was late afternoon when we left the gallery, and we ran into rush hour traffic going back through town. I have no patience for traffic. If I was driving I'd be cussing and banging my head against the steering wheel. Ranger was unfazed, in his zone. Zen calm. Several times I could swear he stopped breathing.

  When we hit gridlock approaching Trenton, Ranger took an exit, cut down a side street, and parked in a small lot set between brick storefront businesses and three-story row houses. The street was narrow and felt dark, even during daylight hours. Storefront windows were dirty with faded displays. Black spray-painted graffiti covered the first-floor fronts of the row houses.

  If at that very moment someone staggered out of a row house, blood gushing from bullet holes in multiple places on his body, it wouldn't take me by surprise.

  I peered out the windshield and bit into my lower lip. “We aren't going to the Bat Cave, are we?”

  “No, babe. We're going to Shorty's for pizza.”

  A small neon sign hung over the door of the building adjoining the lot. Sure enough, the sign said Shorty's. The two small windows in the front of the building had been blacked out with paint. The door was heavy wood and windowless.

  I looked over my shoulder at Ranger. “The pizza is good here?” I tried not to let my voice waver, but it sounded squeezed and far away in my head. It was the voice of fear. Maybe fear is too strong a word. After the past week maybe fear should be reserved for life-threatening situations. But then again, maybe fear was appropriate.

  “The pizza is good here,” Ranger said, and he pushed the door open for me.

  The sudden wash of noise and pizza fumes almost knocked me to my knees. It was dark inside Shorty's, and it was packed. Booths lined the walls and tables cluttered the middle of the room. An old-fashioned jukebox blasted out music from a far corner. Mostly there were men in Shorty's. The women who were there looked like they could hold their own. The men were in work boots and jeans. They were old and young, their faces lined from years of sun and cigarettes. They looked like they didn't need gun instruction.

  We got a booth in a corner that was dark enough not to be able to see bloodstains or roaches. Ranger looked comfortable, his back to the wall, black shirt blending into the shadows.

  The waitress was dressed in a white Shorty's T-shirt and a short black skirt. She had big hooters, a lot of brown curly hair, and more mascara than I'd ever managed, even on my most insecure day. She smiled at Ranger like she knew him better than I did. “What'll it be?” she asked.

  “Pizza and beer,” Ranger said.

  “Do you come here a lot?” I asked him.

  “Often enough. We keep a safe house in the neighborhood. Half the people in here are local. Half come from a truck stop on the next block.”

  The waitress dropped cardboard coasters on the scarred wood table and put a frosted glass of beer on each.

  “I thought you didn't drink,” I said to Ranger. “You know, the-body-is-a-temple thing? And now wine at my apartment and beer at Shorty's.”

  “I don't drink when I'm working. And I don't get drunk. And the body is only a temple four days a week.”

  “Wow,” I said, “you're going to hell in a handbasket, eating pizza and boozing it up three days a week. I thought I noticed a little extra fat around the middle.”

  Ranger raised an eyebrow. “A little extra fat around the middle. Anything else?”

  “Maybe the beginnings of a double chin.”

  Truth is, Ranger didn't have fat anywhere. Ranger was perfect. And we both knew it.

  He drank some beer and studied me. “Don't you think you're taking a chance, baiting me, when I'm the only thing standing between you and the guy at the bar with the snake tattooed on his forehead?”

  I looked at the guy with the snake. “He seems like a nice guy.” Nice for a homicidal maniac.

  Ranger smiled. “He works for me.”

  Stephanie Plum 8 - Hard Eight

  12

  THE SUN WAS setting when we got back to the car.

  “That was possibly the best pizza I've ever had,” I said to Ranger. “Overall, it was a frightening experience, but the pizza was great.”

  “Shorty makes it himself.”

  “Does Shorty work for you, too?”

  “Yeah. He caters all my cocktail parties.”

  More Ranger humor. At least, I was pretty sure it was humor.

  RANGER REACHED HAMILTON Avenue and glanced over at me. “Where are you staying tonight?”

  “My parents' house.”

  He turned into the Burg. “I'll have Tank drop a car off for you. You can use it until you replace the CR-V. Or until you destroy it.”

  “Where do you get all these cars from?”

  “You don't actually want to know, do you?”

  I took a beat to think about it. “No,” I said. “I don't suppose I do. If I knew, you'd have to kill me, right?”

  “Something like that.”

  He stopped in front of my parents' house, and we both looked to the door. My mother and my grandmother were standing there, watching us.

  “I'm not sure I feel comfortable about the way your grandma looks at me,” Ranger said.

  “She wants to see you naked.”

  “I wish you hadn't told me that, babe.”

  “Everyone I know wants to see you naked.”

  “And you?”

  “Never crossed my mind.” I held my breath when I said it, and I hoped God didn't strike me down dead for lying. I hopped out of the car and ran inside.

  Grandma Mazur was waiting for me in the foyer. “The darnedest thing happened this afternoon,” she said. “I was walking home from the bakery, and a car pulled up alongside me. And there was a rabbit in it. He was driving. And he handed me one of them post office mailing envelopes, and he said I should give the envelope to you. It all happened so fast. And as soon as he drove away I remembered that it was a rabbit that set fire to your car. Do you think it could be the same rabbit?”

  Ordinarily I would have asked questions. What kind of car and did you get the plate? In this case the questions were useless. The cars were always different. And they were always stolen.

  I took the sealed envelope from her, carefully opened it, and looked inside. Photos. Snapshots of me, sleeping on my parents' couch. They were taken last night. Someone had let themselves into the house and stood there, watching me sleep. And then photographed me. All without my knowledge. Whoever it was had picked a good night. I'd slept like the dead thanks to the giant margarita and the sleepless night before.

  “What's in the envelope?” Grandma wanted to know. “Looks like photographs.”

  “Nothing ver
y interesting,” I said. “I think it was a prank rabbit.”

  My mother looked like she knew better, but she didn't say anything. By the end of the night we'll have a fresh batch of cookies, and she'll have done all the ironing. That's my mother's form of stress management.

  I borrowed the Buick, and I drove to Morelli's house. He lived just outside the Burg, in a neighborhood closely resembling the Burg, less than a quarter mile from my parents'. He'd inherited the house from his aunt, and it turned out to be a good fit. Life is surprising. Joe Morelli, the scourge of Trenton High, biker, babe magnet, barroom brawler, now a semirespectable property owner. Somehow, over the years, Morelli had grown up. No small feat for a male member of that family.

 
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