Hard eight, p.22
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       Hard Eight, p.22

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  Costanza walked over and stood next to Big Dog. “Cripes.”

  Carol and I were holding hands for support. “Tell me,” I said to Costanza.

  “You sure you want to know?”

  I nodded my head yes.

  “It's a dead guy in a bear suit.”

  The world stood still for a moment. “It's not Evelyn or Annie?”

  “No. I'm telling you, it's a dead guy in a bear suit. Come look for yourself.”

  “I'll take your word for it.”

  “Your grandma's gonna be real disappointed if you don't look at this. Not every day you see a dead guy in a bear suit.”

  The EMTs rolled in and a couple unmarked cars followed close behind. Costanza stretched some tape around the crime scene.

  Morelli parked across the street and strolled over. He looked in the trunk, and then he looked at me. “It's a dead guy in a bear suit.”

  “That's what they tell me.”

  “Your grandma's never going to forgive you if you don't take a look at this.”

  “Do I really want to look at it?”

  Morelli studied the body in the trunk. “No, probably not.” He walked over to me. “Who owns the car?”

  “Evelyn, but nobody's seen her. Carol said the car showed up this morning. Did you draw this case?”

  “Nope,” Morelli said. “This is Benny's. I'm just sight-seeing. Bob and I were on our way to the park when I heard the call go out.”

  I could see Bob watching us from the truck. He had his nose pressed to the window, and he was panting.

  “I'm okay,” I said to Morelli. “I'll call you when I'm done here.”

  “You have a phone?”

  “It came with the CR-V.”

  Morelli looked at the car. “Rental?”

  “Sort of.”

  “Shit, Stephanie, you didn't get that car from Ranger, did you? No, wait a minute.” He held his hands up. “I don't want to know.” He looked sideways at me. “Did you ever ask him where he gets all these cars?”

  “He said he'd tell me, but then he'd have to kill me.”

  “Did you ever stop to think he might not be kidding?” He got into his truck, buckled himself in, and cranked the engine over.

  “Who's Bob?” Carol asked.

  “Bob's the one who's sitting in the truck, panting.”

  “I'd be panting, too, if I was in Morelli's truck,” Carol said.

  Benny came over with his pad in his hand. He was in his early forties and probably thinking about retirement in the next couple years. Probably a case like this made retirement even more appealing. I didn't know Benny personally, but I'd heard Morelli talk about him from time to time. From what I heard, he was a good steady cop.

  “I need to ask you some questions,” Benny said.

  I was getting to know these questions by heart.

  I sat on the porch with my back to the car. I didn't want to see them haul the guy out of the trunk. Benny sat across from me. I could look beyond Benny and see old Mr. Pagarelli watching us. I wondered if Abruzzi was watching, too.

  “You know what?” I said to Benny. “This is getting old.”

  He looked apologetic. “I'm almost done.”

  “Not you. This. The bear, the rabbit, the couch, everything.”

  “Have you ever thought about getting a different job?”

  “Every minute of every day.” But then, sometimes the job had its moments. “I have to go,” I said. “Things to do.”

  Benny closed his little cop notebook. “Be careful.”

  That's exactly what I wasn't going to do. I hopped into the CR-V and eased around the emergency vehicles blocking the road. It wasn't quite noon. Lula should still be in the office. I needed to talk to Abruzzi, and I was too chicken to do it all by myself.

  I parked at the curb and barreled through the office door. “I want to talk to Eddie Abruzzi,” I said to Connie. “Do you have any idea where I might find him?”

  “He has an office downtown. I don't know if he'll be there on a Saturday.”

  “I know where you can find him,” Vinnie yelled from his inner sanctum. “He'll be at the track. He goes to the track every Saturday, rain or shine, as long as the horses are running.”

  “Monmouth?” I asked.

  “Yeah, Monmouth. He'll be on the rail.”

  I looked over at Lula. “Do you feel like going to the track?”

  “Hell, yeah. I feel lucky. I might do some betting. My horoscope said I was gonna make good decisions today. Only thing, you want to be careful. Your horoscope sucked.”

  This didn't surprise me.

  “I see you're driving a new car already,” Lula said. “Rental?”

  I pressed my lips together.

  Lula and Connie exchanged knowing glances.

  “Girl, you're gonna pay for that car,” Lula said. “And I want to know all the details. You better take notes.”

  “I want measurements,” Connie said.

  IT WAS A nice day and the traffic was steady. We were going in the general direction of the shore, and lucky for us, it wasn't July because in July the road would be a parking lot.

  “Your horoscope didn't say anything about making good decisions,” Lula said. “So I think I'm the one who should be deciding things today. And I'm deciding we should play the ponies and stay far away from Abruzzi. What do you want to talk to him about anyway? What are you going to say to the man?”

  “I don't have it totally worked out, but it'll be along the lines of 'fuck off.' ”

  “Uh-oh,” Lula said. “That don't sound like a good decision to me.”

  “Benito Ramirez fed off fear. I have a feeling Abruzzi is like that, too. I want him to know it's not working.” And I want to know what he's after. I want to know why Evelyn and Annie are important to him.

  “Benito Ramirez didn't only feed off fear,” Lula said. “That was just the first part. That was foreplay. Ramirez liked to hurt people. And he'd hurt you until you were dead . . . or wished you were dead.”

  I thought about that for the forty minutes it took me to get to the track. The awful part is that I knew it to be true. I knew firsthand. I was the one who discovered Lula after Ramirez was done with her. Finding Steven Soder was a walk in the park compared to finding Lula.

  “This is my idea of work,” Lula said when I pulled into the lot. “Not everybody's got a good job like us. Sure, we get shot at once in a while, but look here, we're not stuck in some crummy office building today.”

  “Today is Saturday,” I said. “Most people aren't working at all.”

  “Well, yeah,” Lula said. “But we could do this on a Wednesday if we wanted.”

  My cell phone chirped.

  “Put ten dollars to win on Roger Dodger in the fifth,” Ranger said. And he disconnected.

  “Well?” Lula asked.

  “Ranger. He wants me to bet ten dollars on Roger Dodger in the fifth.”

  “Did you tell him we were going to the track?”


  “How's he do that?” Lula asked. “How's he know where we are? I'm telling you, he's not human. He's from space or something.”

  We looked around to see if we were being followed. I hadn't thought to look for a tail on the way down. “Probably he has the car monitored,” I said. “Like OnStar, but his system reports to the Bat Cave.”

  We followed a tidal wave of people through the gate, into the belly of the grandstand. The first race had just been run and the smell of nervous sweat was already permeating the ticket area. The air was thick with collective angst and hope and the frenzied energy that boils at a track.

  Lula's eyes were rolling in her head, not sure where to go first, hearing the conflicting call of nachos, beer, and the five-dollar window.

  “We need a racing sheet,” she said. “How much time do we got? I don't want to miss this race. There's a horse named Decision Maker. That's a sign from God. First my horoscope and then this. I was meant to come here today and bet on this hor
se. Outta my way. You're getting in my way.”

  I stood in the middle of the floor and waited for Lula to place her bet. All around me people were talking horses and jockeys, living in the moment, enjoying the diversion. I, on the other hand, wasn't allowed the diversion. I couldn't get my mind off Abruzzi. I was being stalked. My emotions were being manipulated. My security was threatened. And I was angry. I was up to here with it. Lula was absolutely right about Benito Ramirez and his sadistic cruelty. And she was probably right that talking to Abruzzi was a bad idea. But I was going to do it anyway. I couldn't help myself. Of course, I had to find him first. And that wasn't going to be as easy as I originally thought. I'd forgotten how big the area was at the rail, how many people congregated there.

  The bell sounded to close the windows, and Lula rushed over to me. “I got it. I just got it in time. We got to hurry up and get seats. I don't want to miss this. I just know this horse is going to win. He's a long shot, too. We're going out to dinner tonight. I'm treating.”

  We found seats in the grandstand and watched the horses come in. If I'd had my own CR-V there would have been minibinoculars in the glove compartment. Unfortunately, the minibinoculars were now a melted glob of glass and slag, probably compressed to the thickness of a dime.

  I systematically worked my way through the crowd at the rail, trying to find Abruzzi. The horses took off, and the crowd surged forward, shouting, waving programs. It was impossible to see anything other than a blur of color. Lula was screaming and jumping up and down next to me.

  “Go, you motherfucker,” she was yelling. “Go, go, go, you dumb sonovabitch!”

  I wasn't sure what to wish for. I wanted her to win, but I was afraid if she won, she'd be impossible with the horoscope stuff.

  The horses streaked across the finish line, and Lula was still jumping. “Yes,” she was screaming. “Yes, yes, yes!”

  I looked over at her. “You won, right?”

  “You bet your ass I won. I won big. Twenty to one. I must have been the only genius in this whole freaking place who bet on that four-legged wonder. I'm going to get my money. Are you coming with me?”

  “No. I'm going to wait here. I want to look for Abruzzi now that the crowd is thinning.”

  Stephanie Plum 8 - Hard Eight


  PART OF THE problem was that I was seeing everyone at the rail from the back. Difficult enough to recognize someone you know intimately this way. Almost impossible to recognize someone you've only seen briefly on two occasions.

  Lula plunked down into the seat next to me. “You're not going to believe this,” she said. “I just looked into the eyes of the devil.” She had her ticket clutched tight in her hand, and she made the sign of the cross. “Holy mother of God. Look here. I'm crossing myself. What's with that? I'm Baptist. Baptist don't do this cross shit.”

  “Eyes of the devil?” I asked.

  “Abruzzi. I ran right into Abruzzi. I was coming from collecting my money, and I just placed my bet, and I bumped right into him like it was destiny. He looked down at me, and I looked into those eyes, and I almost messed my pants. It's like all my blood turns cold when I look into those eyes.”

  “Did he say anything?”

  “No. He smiled at me. It was awful. It was that smile that's just a slash in his face and doesn't go to his eyes. And then calm as anything, he turned around and walked away.”

  “Was he alone? What was he wearing?”

  “He was with that Darrow guy again. I think Darrow must be muscle. And I don't know what he was wearing. It's like my brain gets paralyzed when I get five feet from Abruzzi. I just get sucked into those creepy eyes.” Lula gave a shiver. “Yeesh,” she said.

  At least I knew Abruzzi was here. And I knew he was with Darrow. I started working my way through the rail crowd again. I was beginning to recognize people. They tended to go away to bet, but then they gravitated back to their favorite spot on the rail.

  They were Jersey people, the younger guys dressed in T-shirts and khakis and jeans, the older guys wearing Sansabelt polyester slacks and three-button knit golf shirts. Their faces were animated. Jersey doesn't hold much back. And their bodies were padded with a good protective layer of deep-fried fish and sausage sandwich fat.

  From the corner of my eye I saw Lula make the sign of the cross again.

  Lula caught me looking at her. “It's a comfort,” Lula said. “I think the Catholics might have hit on something here.”

  The third race started, and Lula rocketed out of her seat. “Go, Ladies' Choice,” she screamed. “Ladies' Choice! Ladies' Choice!”

  Ladies' Choice won by a nose, and Lula looked stunned. “I won again,” she said. “There's something wrong here. I never win.”

  “Why did you pick Ladies' Choice?”

  “It was the obvious one. I'm a lady. And I had to make a choice.”

  “You think you're a lady?”

  “Fuckin' A,” Lula said.

  This time, I followed her out of the grandstand to the window. She was moving carefully, looking around, trying to avoid another meeting with Abruzzi. I was looking around for the opposite reason.

  Lula stopped and went rigid. “There he is,” she said. “Over there at the fifty-dollar window.”

  I saw him, too. He was third in line. Darrow was behind him. I could feel every muscle in my body go into contraction. It was like I was squinting from my eyeballs clear down to my sphincter.

  I marched over and got right up into Abruzzi's face. “Hey,” I said, “remember me?”

  “Of course,” Abruzzi said. “I have your picture in a frame on my desk. Do you know you sleep with your mouth open? It's actually very sensuous.”

  I went still, hoping not to show emotion. Truth is, he knocked the air out of my lungs. And he sent a stab of revulsion into me that sickened my stomach. I'd expected he'd say something about the photos. I hadn't expected this. “I guess you need to pull these idiot pranks to compensate for the fact that you're not having any success at locating Evelyn,” I said. “She's got something you want and you can't get your hands on it, can you?”

  Now it was Abruzzi's turn to go still. For a single terrifying moment I thought he was going to hit me. Then his composure returned, and the blood rushed back into his face. “You're a stupid little bitch,” he said.

  “Yep,” I said. “And I'm your worst nightmare.” Okay, it was sort of a hokey movie line, but I've always wanted to say it. “And I'm not impressed with the rabbit thing. It was clever the first time when you carted Soder into my apartment, but it's getting tired.”

  “You said you liked bunnies,” Abruzzi said. “Don't you like them anymore?”

  “Get a life,” I said. “Find yourself a new hobby.”

  And I turned on my heel and stalked off.

  Lula was waiting at the mouth of the tunnel that led to our seats. “What'd you say to him?”

  “I told him to let it ride on Peaches' Dream in the fourth.”

  “The hell you did,” Lula said. “Not often you see a man turn white like that.”

  By the time I got to my seat my knees were knocking together, and my hands were shaking so bad I was having a hard time hanging onto my program.

  “Jeez,” Lula said, “you aren't having a heart attack or anything, are you?”

  “I'm okay,” I said. “It's the excitement of the horse racing.”

  “Yeah, I figured that was it.”

  A hysterical giggle escaped from my mouth. “It's not like Abruzzi scares me.”

  “Sure, I know that,” Lula said. “Nothing scares you. You're a big badass bounty hunter.”

  “Damn right,” I said. And then I concentrated on not hyperventilating.

  “WE SHOULD DO this more often,” Lula said, getting out of my car, unlocking the Trans Am.

  She was parked on the street in front of the office. The office was closed, but the new bookstore in the house next door was open. Lights were on, and I could see Maggie Mason unpacking boxes in the wi

  “I had a setback in the last race,” Lula said, “but aside from that I had a very good day. I just let it ride. Next time we could go to Freehold, and then we don't have to worry about running into you know who.”

  Lula drove off, but I stayed. I was like Evelyn now. On the run. No place safe to settle. For lack of something better, I went to the movies. Halfway through the movie I got up and left. I got into my car, and I went home. I parked in the lot, and I didn't allow myself to hesitate behind the wheel. I got out of the CR-V, beeped it locked, and walked straight to the back door that led to the lobby. I took the elevator to the second floor, marched down the hall, and unlocked the door to my apartment. I took a deep breath and stepped inside. It was very quiet. And dark.

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