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One for the money, p.21
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       One for the Money, p.21

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  My mother started as soon as I hit the front porch. “Every time I see you, you look worse and worse. Bruises and cuts and now what happened to your hair, and ommigod you haven't got eyebrows. What happened to your eyebrows? Your father said you were in a fire.”

  “A car caught fire in my parking lot. It wasn't anything.”

  “I saw it on the TV,” Grandma Mazur said, elbowing her way past my mother. “They said it was a bombing. Blew the car sky high. And some guy was in the car. Some sleazoid named Beyers. Except there wasn't much left of him.”

  Grandma Mazur was wearing a pink and orange print cotton blouse with a tissue waded up in the sleeve, bright blue spandex shorts, white tennies, and stockings rolled just above her knee.

  “I like your shorts,” I said to her. “Great color.”

  “She went like that to the funeral home this afternoon,” my father yelled from the kitchen. “Tony Mancuso's viewing.”

  “I tell you it was something,” Grandma Mazur said. “The VFW was there. Best viewing I've been to all month. And Tony looked real good. They gave him one of those ties with the little horse heads on.”

  “We got seven phone calls so far,” my mother said. “I told everyone she forgot to take her medicine this morning.”

  Grandma Mazur clacked her teeth. “Nobody knows fashion around here. You can't hardly ever wear anything different.” She looked down at her shorts. “What do you think?” she asked me. “You think these are okay for an afternoon viewing?”

  “Sure,” I said, “but if it was at night I'd wear black.”

  “Just exactly what I was thinking. I gotta get me some black ones next.”

  By eight o'clock I was sated with good food and overstuffed furniture and ready to once again take up the mantle of independent living. I staggered out of my parents' house, arms loaded with leftovers, and motored back to my apartment.

  For the better part of the day I'd avoided thinking about the explosion, but it was time to face facts. Someone had tried to kill me, and it wasn't Ramirez. Ramirez wanted to inflict pain and hear me beg. Ramirez was frightening and abhorrent, but he was also predictable. I knew where Ramirez was coming from. Ramirez was criminally insane.

  Planting a bomb was a different kind of insanity. A bombing was calculated and purposeful. A bombing was meant to rid the world of a particular, annoying person.

  Why me? I thought. Why would someone want me dead? Even articulating the question sent a chill through my heart.

  I parked the Nova in the middle of my lot and wondered if I'd have the courage to step on the accelerator tomorrow morning. Morelli's car had been shoveled away and there was little evidence of the fire. The macadam was pocked and cracked where the Jeep had burned, but there was no crime scene tape or charred debris to further mark the spot.

  I let myself into my apartment and found my answering machine light furiously blinking. Dorsey had called three times requesting a call back. He didn't sound friendly. Bernie had called to say they were having a storewide sale and I should drop by. Twenty percent off blenders and a complimentary bottle of daiquiri mix to the first twenty customers. My eyes glazed over at the thought of a daiquiri. I still had a few dollars left, and blenders had to be pretty cheap in the overall scheme of things, right? The last call was from Jimmy Alpha with another apology and his hopes that I hadn't been badly hurt by Ramirez.

  I looked at my watch. It was almost nine. I couldn't get to Bernie before closing. Too bad. I was pretty sure if I had a daiquiri I could think much more clearly and probably figure out who tried to send me into orbit.

  I turned the television on and sat in front of it, but my mind was elsewhere. It was scanning for potential assassins. Of my captures only Lonnie Dodd was a possibility, and he was in jail. More likely this had to do with the Kulesza murder. Someone was worried about me poking around. I couldn't imagine anyone being worried enough to want to kill me. Death was very serious shit.

  There had to be something I was missing here. Something about Carmen or Kulesza or Morelli . . . or maybe the mystery witness.

  An ugly little thought wriggled around in a back corner of my brain. So far as I could see, I was a genuine, mortal threat to only one person. That person was Morelli.

  The phone rang at eleven, and I caught it before the machine picked up.

  “Are you alone?” Morelli asked.

  I hesitated. “Yes.”

  “Why the hesitation?”

  “How do you feel on the subject of murder?”

  “Whose murder are we talking about?”

  “Mine.”

  “I feel warm all over.”

  “Just wondering.”

  “I'm coming up. Watch for me at the door.”

  I tucked the defense spray into the waistband of my shorts and covered it with my T-shirt. I glued my eye to the peephole and opened the door when Morelli strolled down the hall. Every day he looked a little bit worse. He needed a haircut, and he had a week's worth of beard that probably had only taken him two days to grow. His jeans and T-shirt were street-person quality.

  He closed and locked the door behind himself. He took in my scorched, bruised face and the bruises on my arm. His expression was grim. “You want to tell me about it?”

  “The cut lip and the bruises are from Ramirez. We had a tussle, but I think I won. I gassed him and left him throwing up in the road.”

  “And the singed eyebrows?”

  “Mmmm. Well, that's a little complicated.”

  His face darkened. “What happened?”

  “Your car blew up.”

  There was no reaction for several beats. “You want to run that by me again?” he finally said.

  “The good news is . . . you don't have to worry about Morty Beyers anymore.”

  “And the bad news?”

  I took his license plate from the kitchen counter and handed it to him. “This is all that's left of your car.”

  He stared down at the plate in shocked silence.

  I told him about Morty Beyers's wife leaving him, and the bomb, and the three phone calls from Dorsey.

  He drew the same conclusion I'd drawn. “It wasn't Ramirez.”

  “I made a mental list of people who might want me dead, and your name was at the top.”

  “Only in my dreams,” he said. “Who else was on the list?”

  “Lonnie Dodd, but I think he's still in prison.”

  “You ever get death threats? How about ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends? You run over anyone recently?”

  I had no intention of dignifying that question with a reaction.

  “Okay,” he said. “So you think this is associated with the Kulesza murder?”

  “Yes.”

  “Are you scared?”

  “Yes.”

  “Good. Then you'll be careful.” He opened my refrigerator door, pulled out the leftovers my mom had sent home with me, and ate them cold. “You need to be careful when you talk to Dorsey. If he finds out you've been working with me, he could charge you with aiding and abetting.”

  “I have this very disturbing suspicion that I've been talked into an alliance that's not in my best interest.”

  He cracked a beer open. “The only way you're going to collect that $10,000 is if I allow you to bring me in. And I'm not going to allow you to bring me in if I can't prove myself innocent. Any time you want to call the deal off, just let me know, but you can kiss your money good-by.”

  “That's a rotten attitude.”

  He shook his head. “Realistic.”

  “I could have gassed you any number of times.”

  “I don't think so.”

  I whipped the spray out, but before I could aim he'd knocked the canister from my hand and sent it flying across the room.

  “Doesn't count,” I said. “You were expecting it.”

  He finished his sandwich and slid his dish into the dishwasher. “I'm always expecting it.”

  “Where do we go from here?”

  “We keep do
ing more of the same. Obviously we're hitting a nerve.”

  “I don't like being a target.”

  “You aren't going to whine about this, are you?” He settled himself in front of the television and starting working the channel changer. He looked tired, sitting with his back against the wall, one leg bent at the knee. He locked in a late night show and closed his eyes. His breathing grew deep and even and his head slumped to his chest.

  “I could gas you now,” I whispered.

  He raised his head, but he didn't open his eyes. A smile played at the corners of his mouth. “It's not your style, Cupcake.”

  * * * * *

  HE WAS STILL SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR in front of the television when I got up at eight. I tiptoed past him and went out to run. He was reading the paper and drinking coffee when I returned.

  “Anything in there about the bombing” I asked.

  “Story and pictures on page three. They're calling it an unexplained explosion. Nothing especially interesting.” He looked over the top of the paper at me. “Dorsey left another message on your machine. Maybe you should see what he wants.”

  I took a fast shower, dressed in clean clothes, slathered some aloe cream on my blistered face, and followed my scaly nose to the coffeepot. I drank half a cup while I read the funnies, and then I called Dorsey.

  “We've got the analysis back from the lab,” he said. “It was definitely a bomb. Professional job. Of course, you can get a book out of any library that will tell you how to do a professional bombing. You could build a fucking nuke if you wanted to. Anyway, I thought you'd want to know.”

  “I suspected as much.”

  “You have any ideas who would do such a thing?”

  “No names.”

  “How about Morelli?”

  “That's a possibility.”

  “I missed you at the station yesterday.”

  He was fishing. He knew there was something screwy about all of this. He just hadn't figured it out yet. Welcome to the club, Dorsey. “I'll try to get there today.”

  “Try real hard.”

  I hung up and topped off my coffee. “Dorsey wants me to come in.”

  “Are you going?”

  “No. He's going to ask questions I can't answer.”

  “You should put in some time on Stark Street this morning.”

  “Not this morning. I have things to do.”

  “What things?”

  “Personal things.”

  He raised an eyebrow.

  “I have some loose ends to tie up . . . just in case,” I said.

  “Just in case what?”

  I made an exasperated gesture. “Just in case something happens to me. For the past ten days I've been stalked by a professional sadist, and now I'm on the happy bomber's hit list. I feel a little insecure, okay? Give me a break, Morelli. I need to see some people. I have a few personal errands to run.”

  He gently peeled a strip of loose skin off my nose. “You're going to be okay,” he said softly. “I understand that you're scared. I get scared too. But we're the good guys, and the good guys always win.”

  I really felt like a jerk, because here was Morelli being nice to me, and what I actually wanted to do was hop on over to Bernie's to buy a blender and get my free daiquiri mix.

  “How were you planning on running these errands without the Jeep?” he asked.

  “I retrieved the Nova.”

  He winced. “You didn't park it in the lot, did you?”

  “I was hoping the bomber wouldn't know it was my car.”

  “Oh boy.”

  “I'm sure I have nothing to worry about,” I said.

  “Yeah. I'm sure, too. I'll go down with you just to make double sure.”

  I collected my gear, checked the windows, and reset the answering machine. Morelli was waiting for me at the door. We walked downstairs together, and we both paused when we reached the Nova.

  “Even if the bomber knew this was your car, he'd have to be stupid to try the same thing twice,” Morelli said. “Statistically the second hit comes from a different direction.”

  Made perfect sense to me, but my feet were stuck to the pavement and my heart was rocketing around in my chest. “All right. Here I go,” I said. “Now or never.”

  Morelli had dropped to his belly and was looking under the Nova.

  “What do you see?” I asked him.

  “A hell of an oil leak.” He crawled out and got to his feet.

  I raised the hood and checked the dipstick. Wonder of wonders, the car needed oil. I fed it two cans and slammed the hood down.

  Morelli had taken the keys from the door handle and angled himself behind the wheel. “Stand back,” he said to me.

  “No way. This is my car. I'll start it up.”

  “If one of us is going to get blown apart it might as well be me. I'm as good as dead if I don't find that missing witness, anyway. Move away from the car.”

  He turned the key. Nothing happened. He looked at me.

  “Sometimes you have to smack it around,” I said.

  He turned the key again and brought his fist down hard on the dash. The car coughed and caught. It idled rough and then settled in.

  Morelli slumped against the wheel, eyes closed. “Shit.”

  I looked in the window at him. “Is my seat wet?”

  “Very funny.” He got out of the car and held the door for me. “Do you want me to follow?”

  “No. I'll be fine. Thanks.”

  “I'll be on Stark Street if you need me. Who knows . . . maybe the witness will show up at the gym.”

  When I got to Bernie's store I noticed people weren't standing in line to go through the door, so I assumed I was in good shape for the daiquiri mix.

  “Hey,” Bernie said, “look who's here.”

  “I got your message about the blender.”

  “It's this little baby,” he said, patting a display blender. “It chops nuts, crushes ice, mashes bananas, and makes a hell of a daiquiri.”

  I looked at the price affixed to the blender. I could afford it. “Sold. Do I get my free daiquiri mix?”

  “You bet.” He took a boxed blender to the register, bagged it, and rang it up. “How's it going?” he asked cautiously, his eyes fixed on the singed stumps of hair that had once been eyebrows.

  “It's been better.”

  “A daiquiri will help.”

  “Without a shadow of a doubt.”

  On the other side of the street, Sal was Windexing his front door. He was a pleasant-looking man, thick-bodied and balding, wrapped in his white butcher's apron. So far as I knew, he was a small-time bookie. Nothing special. I doubted he was connected. So why would a guy like Kulesza, whose entire life centered on Stark Street, drive all the way across town to see Sal? I knew a few of Kulesza's vital statistics, but I didn't know anything of his personal life. Shopping at Sal's was the only moderately interesting piece of information I had about Kulesza. Maybe Ziggy was a betting man. Maybe he and Sal were old friends. Maybe they were related. Now that I thought about it, maybe Sal would know about Carmen or the guy with the flat nose.

  I chatted with Bernie for a few more minutes while I settled in to the idea of interviewing Sal. I watched a woman enter the shop and make a purchase. This seemed like a good approach to me. It would give me an opportunity to look around.

  I promised Bernie I'd be back for bigger and better appliances and walked across the street to Sal's.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  13

  I PUSHED THROUGH SAL'S FRONT DOOR and went to the long case filled with steaks and ground meat patties and twine-bound roasts.

  Sal gave me a welcoming smile. “What can I do for you?”

  “I was at Kuntz's, buying a blender . . .” I held the bag up for him to see. “And I thought I'd get something for supper while I was here.”

  “Sausage? Fresh fish? Nice piece of chicken?”

  “Fish.”

  “I got some flounder just cau
ght off the Jersey shore.”

  Probably it glowed in the dark. “That'll be fine. Enough for two people.”

  Somewhere in the back a door opened, and I could hear the drone of a truck motor. The door clanged shut, and the motor noise disappeared.

 
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