One for the Money, p.22Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
A man entered from the hallway beside the walk-in, and my heart jumped into triple time. Not only was the man's nose smashed, but his entire face looked as if it had been pressed flat . . . as if it had been hit with a frying pan. I couldn't know for sure until Morelli took a look, but I suspected I'd found the missing witness.
I was torn between wanting to jump up and down and make sounds of excitement and wanting to bolt and run before I was hacked up into chops and roasts.
“Got a delivery for you,” the man said to Sal. “You want it in the lockup?”
“Yeah,” Sal said. “And take the two barrels set by the door. One of them's heavy. You'll need the dolly.”
Sal's attention turned back to the fish. “How you gonna cook these fillets?” he asked me. “You know you can pan fry them, or bake them, or stuff them. Personally, I like them fried. Heavy batter, deep fat.”
I heard the back door close after the guy with the flat face. “Who was that?” I asked.
“Louis. Works for the distributor in Philly. He brings up meat.”
“And then what does he take back in the barrels?”
“Sometimes I save up trim. They use it for dog food.”
I had to grit my teeth to keep from flying out the door. I'd found the witness! I was sure of it. By the time I got to the Nova I was dizzy with the effort of restraint. I was saved! I was going to be able to pay my rent. I'd succeeded at something. And now that the missing witness was found, I'd be safe. I'd turn Morelli in and have nothing more to do with Ziggy Kulesza. I'd be out of the picture. There'd be no reason for anyone to want to kill me . . . except, of course, Ramirez. And, hopefully Ramirez would be implicated sufficiently to put him away for a long, long time.
The old man across from Carmen's apartment had said he'd been bothered by the noise from a refrigerator truck. Dollars to donuts it had been a meat truck. I couldn't know for sure until I did another check on the back of Carmen's apartment building, but if Louis had parked close enough he might have been able to ease himself down onto the roof of the refrigerator truck. Then he put Carmen on ice and drove away.
I couldn't figure the connection with Sal. Maybe there was no connection. Maybe it was just Ziggy and Louis working as cleanup for Ramirez.
I had a decent view of Sal's from where I sat. I shoved the key into the ignition and took one last look. Sal and Louis were talking. Louis was cool. Sal was agitated, throwing his hands into the air. I decided to watch awhile. Sal turned his back on Louis and made a phone call. Even from this distance I could see he wasn't happy. He slammed the receiver down, and both men went into the walk-in freezer and reappeared moments later rolling out the trim drum. They shunted the drum down the hallway leading to the back exit. Louis reappeared a short while later with what appeared to be a side of beef slung over his shoulder. He deposited the meat in the freezer and rolled out the second drum. He paused at the back hallway and stared toward the front of the store. My heart skipped in my chest, and I wondered if he could see the snooping. He walked forward, and I reached for my Sure Guard. He stopped at the door and turned the little OPEN sign to CLOSED.
I hadn't expected this. What did this mean? Sal was nowhere in sight, the store was closed, and so far as I knew it wasn't a holiday. Louis left through the back hallway, and the lights went out. I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. The bad feeling escalated to panic, and the panic told me not to lose Louis.
I put the Nova in gear and drove to the end of the block. A white refrigerator truck with Pennsylvania plates eased into traffic ahead of me, and two blocks later we turned onto Chambers. I would have liked nothing better than to drop the whole thing in Morelli's lap, but I hadn't a clue how to get in touch with him. He was north of me on Stark Street, and I was heading south. He probably had a phone in the van, but I didn't know the number, and besides, I couldn't call him until we stopped somewhere.
The refrigerator truck picked up Route 206 at Whitehorse. Traffic was moderately heavy. I was two car lengths back, and I found it fairly easy to stay hidden and at the same time keep sight of Louis. Just past the junction of Route 70 my oil light went on and stayed on. I did some vigorous swearing, screeched to a stop on the shoulder, poured two cans of oil with breakneck precision, slammed the hood, and took off.
I pushed the Nova up to eighty, ignoring the shimmy in the front end and the startled looks of other drivers as I rattled past them in my pussymobile. After an agonizing couple of miles I caught sight of the truck. Louis was one of the slower drivers on the road, holding his speed down to only ten miles an hour over the limit. I breathed a sigh of relief and fell into place. I prayed he wasn't going far. I only had a case and a half of oil in the back seat.
At Hammonton Louis left turned onto a secondary road and drove east. There were fewer cars on this road, and I had to drop farther back. The countryside was rolling farmland and patches of woods. After about fifteen miles, the truck slowed and pulled into a gravel drive that led to a corrugated metal warehouse-type building. The sign on the front of the building said this was the Pachetco Inlet Marina and Cold Storage. Beyond the building I could see boats and beyond the boats the glare of sun on open water.
I sailed by the lot and made a U-turn a quarter mile up the road where it dead-ended at the Mullico River. I returned and did a slow drive-by. The truck was parked at the board walkway that led to the boat slips. Louis and Sal were out of the truck, leaning against the back step bumper, looking like they were waiting for something or someone. They were alone in the lot. It was a small marina, and it seemed that even though it was summer, most of the activity was still weekend-based.
I'd passed a gas station a few miles back. I decided it would be an inconspicuous place to wait. If Sal or Louis left the marina they'd go in this direction, back to civilization, and I could follow. There was the added advantage of a public phone and the possibility of getting in touch with Morelli.
The station was pre-computer age with two old-fashioned gas pumps on a stained cement pad. A sign propped on one of the pumps advertised live bait and cheap gas. The single-level shack behind the pumps was brown shingle patched with flattened jerry cans and assorted pieces of plywood. A public phone had been installed next to the screen door.
I parked, partially hidden, behind the station, and walked the short distance to the phone, happy for the opportunity to stretch my legs. I called my own number. It was the only thing I could think to do. The phone rang once, the machine answered, and I listened to my own voice tell me I wasn't home. “Anybody there?” I asked. No reply. I gave the public phone number and suggested if anyone needed to get in touch with me I'd be at that number for an indeterminate number of minutes.
I was about to get back into my car when Ramirez's Porsche sped by. This is curiouser and curiouser, I thought. Here we have a butcher, a shooter, and a boxer, meeting at the Pachetco Inlet Marina. It seemed unlikely that they were just three guys going fishing. If it had been anyone other than Ramirez who had driven down the road, I might have ventured closer to take a peek. I told myself I was holding back because Ramirez might recognize the Nova. This was only part of the truth. Ramirez had succeeded in his goal. The mere sight of his car sent me into a cold sweat of terror that left serious doubts about my ability to function through another confrontation.
A short time later, the Porsche hummed past me, en route to the highway. The windows were tinted, obscuring vision, but at best it could only seat two men, so that left at least one man at the marina. Hopefully, that one man was Louis. I made another call to my answering machine. This message was more urgent. “CALL ME!” I said.
It was close to dark before the phone finally rang.
“Where are you?” Morelli asked.
“I'm at the shore. At a gas station on the outskirts of Atlantic City. I've found the witness. His name is Louis.”
“Is he with you?”
“He's down the road.” I briefed Morelli on the day's events and gave him directions to the marina. I
It was deep twilight when Morelli finally pulled up next to me in the van. There'd been no traffic on the road since Ramirez, and I was sure the truck hadn't slipped by. It had occurred to me that Louis might be on a boat, possibly spending the night. I couldn't see any other reason for the truck to still be in the marina lot.
“Is our man at the marina?” Morelli asked.
“So far as I know.”
“Has Ramirez come back?”
I shook my head no.
“Think I'll take a look around. You wait here.”
No way was I doing any more waiting anywhere. I was fed up with waiting. And I didn't entirely trust Morelli. He had an annoying habit of making beguiling promises and then waltzing out of my life.
I followed the van to the water's edge and parked beside it. The white refrigerator truck hadn't been moved. Louis wasn't out and about. The boats tied up to the wharf were dark. The Pachetco Inlet Marina was not exactly a bustling hub of activity.
I got out of the Nova and walked around to Morelli.
“I thought I told you to wait at the gas station,” Morelli said. “We look like a fucking parade.”
“I thought you might need help with Louis.”
Morelli was out of the van and standing beside me, looking disreputable and dangerous in the dark. He smiled, and his teeth were startlingly white against his black beard. “Liar. You're worried about your $10,000.”
We stared at each other for a while, making silent assessments.
Morelli finally reached through the open window, snatched a jacket off the front seat, pulled a semiautomatic from the jacket pocket, and shoved it into the waistband of his jeans. “I suppose we might as well look for my witness.”
We walked to the truck and peered inside the cab. The cab was empty and locked. No other cars were parked in the lot.
Nearby, water lapped at pilings, and boats groaned against their moorings. There were four board docks with fourteen slips each, seven to a side. Not all of the slips were in use.
We quietly walked the length of each dock, reading boat names, looking for signs of habitation. Halfway down the third dock we stopped at a big Hatteras Convertible with a flying bridge, and we both mouthed the boat's name. “Sal's Gal.”
Morelli boarded and crept aft. I followed several feet behind. The deck was littered with fishing gear, long-handled nets and gaffs. The door to the salon was padlocked on the outside, telling us Louis was probably not on the inside. Morelli pulled a penlight from his pocket and shone it into the cabin window. The largest portion of the boat interior appeared to have been stripped down for serious fishing, similar to a head boat, with utilitarian benches in place of more luxurious accommodations. The small galley was cluttered with crushed beer cans and stacks of soiled paper plates. The residue from some sort of powder spill glittered under the penlight.
“Sal's a slob,” I said.
“You sure Louis wasn't in the car with Ramirez?” Morelli asked.
“I have no way of knowing. The car has tinted glass—But it only seats two, so at least one person is left here.”
“And there were no other cars on the road?”
“He could have gone in the other direction,” Morelli said.
“He wouldn't have gone far. It dead-ends in a quarter mile.”
The moon was low in the sky, spilling silver dollars of light onto the water. We looked back at the white refrigerator truck. The cooler motor hummed quietly in the darkness.
“Maybe we should take another look at the truck,” Morelli said.
His tone gave me an uneasy feeling, and I didn't want to voice the question that had popped into my head. We'd already determined Louis wasn't in the cab. What was left?
We returned to the truck, and Morelli scanned the outside thermostat controls for the refrigeration unit.
“What's it set at?” I asked.
“Why so cold?”
Morelli stepped down and moved to the back door. “Why do you think?”
“Somebody's trying to freeze something?”
“That would be my guess, too.” The back door to the truck was held closed by a heavy-duty bolt and padlock. Morelli weighed the padlock in the palm of his hand. “Could be worse,” he said. He jogged to the van and returned with a small hacksaw.
I nervously looked around the lot. I didn't especially want to get caught hijacking a meat truck. “Isn't there a better way to do this?” I stage whispered over the rasp of the saw. “Can't you just pick the lock?”
“This is faster,” Morelli said. “Just keep your eyes peeled for a night watchman.”
The saw blade lunged through the metal, and the lock swung open. Morelli threw the bolt back and pulled on the thick, insulated door. The interior of the truck was stygian black. Morelli hauled himself up onto the single-step bumper, and I scrambled after him, wrestling my flashlight out of my shoulder bag. The frigid air pressed against me and took my breath away. We both trained our lights on the frost-shrouded walls. Huge, empty meathooks hung from the ceiling. Nearest the door was the large trim barrel I'd seen them roll out earlier in the afternoon. The empty barrel stood nearby, its lid slanted between the barrel and the truck wall.
I slid my spot of light farther to the rear and dropped it lower. My eyes focused, and I sucked in cold air when I realized what I was seeing. Louis was sprawled spread-eagle on his back, his eyes impossibly wide and unblinking, his feet splayed. Snot had run out of his nose and frozen to his cheek. A large urine stain had crystallized on the front of his work pants. He had a large, dark dot in the middle of his forehead. Sal lay next to him with an identical dot and the same dumbstruck expression on his frozen face.
“Shit,” Morelli said. “I'm not having any luck at all.”
The only dead people I'd ever seen had been embalmed and dressed up for church. Their hair had been styled, their cheeks had been rouged, and their eyes had been closed to suggest eternal slumber. None of them had been shot in the forehead. I felt bile rise in my throat and clapped a hand over my mouth.
Morelli yanked me out the door and onto the gravel. “Don't throw up in the truck,” he said. “You'll screw up the crime scene.”
I did some deep breathing and willed my stomach to settle.
Morelli had his hand at the back of my neck. “You going to be okay?”
I nodded violently. “I'm fine. Just t-t-took me b-b-by surprise.”
“I need some stuff from the van. Stay here. Don't go back in the truck and don't touch anything.”
He didn't have to worry about me going back into the truck. Wild horses couldn't drag me back into the truck.
He returned with a crowbar and two pairs of disposable gloves. He gave one pair to me. We snapped the gloves on, and Morelli climbed up the step bumper. “Shine the light on Louis,” he ordered, bending over the body.
“What are you doing?”
“I'm looking for the missing gun.”
He stood and tossed a set of keys at me. “No gun on him, but he had these keys in his pocket. See if one of them opens the cab door.”
I opened the passenger side door and searched the map pockets, the glove compartment and under the seat, but I didn't come up with a gun. When I went back to Morelli he was working at the sealed drum with a crowbar.
“No gun up front,” I said.
The lid popped off, and Morelli flicked his flashlight on and looked inside.
“Well?” I asked.
His voice was tight when he answered. “It's Carmen.”
I was hit with another wave of nausea. “You think Carmen's been in Sal's freezer all this time?”
“Looks like it.”
“Why would he keep her around? Wouldn't he be afraid someone would discover her?”
Morelli shrugged. “I suppose he felt safe. Maybe he's done this sort of thing before.
“You're thinking about those other women who've disappeared from Stark Street.”
“Yeah. Sal was probably just waiting for a convenient time to take Carmen out and dump her at sea.”
“I don't understand Sal's connection.”
Morelli hammered the lid back on. “Me either, but I feel pretty confident Ramirez can be pursuaded to explain it to us.”
He wiped his hands on his pants and left smudges of white.
“What's with all this white stuff?” I asked. “Sal got a thing with baby powder or cleanser or something?”
Morelli looked down at his hands and his pants. “I hadn't noticed.”
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich / Mystery & Detective / Humor / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes