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One for the money, p.23
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       One for the Money, p.23

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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“There was powder on the floor of the boat. And now you picked some up from the drum and wiped it on your pants.”

  “Jesus,” Morelli said, staring at his hand. “Holy shit.” He flipped the lid off the drum and ran his finger around the inside rim. He put the finger to his mouth and tasted it. “This is dope.”

  “Sal doesn't strike me as a crackhead.”

  “It's not crack. It's heroin.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “I've seen a lot of it.”

  I could see him smiling in the dark.

  “Sweet Pea, I think we've just found ourselves a drop boat,” he said. “All along I've been thinking this was about protecting Ramirez, but now I'm not so sure. I think this might be about drugs.”

  “What's a drop boat?”

  "It's a small boat that goes out to sea to rendezvous with a larger ship engaged in drug smuggling.

  “Most of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma. It's usually routed through northern Africa, then up to Amsterdam or some other European city. In the past, the favored method of entry for the northeast has been to body-pack it through Kennedy. For a year now, we've been getting tips that the stuff is traveling big time on ships coming into Port Newark. The DEA and Customs have been working overtime and coming up empty.” He held his finger in the air for inspection. “I think this could be the reason. By the time the ship sails into Newark, the heroin's already been off loaded.”

  “Onto a drop boat,” I said.

  "Yeah. The drop boat snags the dope from the mother ship and brings it back to a small marina like this where there are no customs inspectors.

  “My guess is they load the stuff into these barrels after it's handed down, and one of the bags broke last time out.”

  “Hard to believe someone would be that sloppy about leaving incriminating evidence.”

  Morelli grunted. “You work with drugs all the time and they become commonplace. You wouldn't believe what people leave in full view in apartments and garages. Besides, the boat belongs to Sal, and chances are Sal wasn't along for the ride. That way if the boat gets busted, Sal says he loaned it to a friend. He didn't know it was being used for illegal activities.”

  “You think this is why there's so much heroin in Trenton?”

  “Could be. When you have a drop boat like this you can bring in large quantities and eliminate the couriers, so you have good availability at low overhead. The cost on the street goes down and the purity goes up.”

  “And addicts start dying.”

  “Yeah.”

  “Why do you think Ramirez shot Sal and Louis?”

  “Maybe Ramirez had to burn some bridges.”

  Morelli played his light over the back corners of the truck. I could barely see him in the dark, but I could hear the scrape of his feet as he moved.

  “What are you doing?” I asked.

  “I'm looking for a gun. In case you haven't noticed I'm shit out of luck. My witness is dead. If I can't find Ziggy's missing gun with an intact latent, I'm as good as dead, too.”

  “There's always Ramirez.”

  “Who may or may not be feeling talkative.”

  “I think you're overreacting. I can place Ramirez at the scene of two execution-type killings, and we've uncovered a major drug operation.”

  “Possibly this casts some doubt about Ziggy's character, but it doesn't alter the fact that I appeared to have shot an unarmed man.”

  “Ranger says you've got to trust in the system.”

  “Ranger ignores the system.”

  I didn't want to see Morelli in jail for a crime he didn't commit, but I also didn't want him living the life of a fugitive. He was actually a pretty good guy, and as much as I hated to admit it, I'd become fond of him. When the manhunt was over I'd miss the teasing and the latenight companionship. It was true that Morelli still touched a nerve every now and then, but there was a new feeling of partnership that transcended most of my earlier anger. I found it hard to believe he would be sent to jail in light of all the new evidence. Possibly he would lose his job on the force. This seemed like a minor disgrace to me when compared to spending long years in hiding.

  “I think we should call the police and let them sort through this,” I said to Morelli. “You can't stay in hiding for the rest of your life. What about your mother? What about your phone bill?”

  “My phone bill? Oh shit, Stephanie, you haven't been running up my phone bill, have you?”

  “We had an agreement. You were going to let me bring you in when we found the missing witness.”

  “I hadn't counted on him being dead.”

  “I'll be evicted.”

  “Listen, Stephanie, your apartment isn't all that great. Besides, this is wasted talk. We both know you aren't capable of bringing me in by force. The only way you're going to collect your money is by my permission. You're just going to have to sit tight.”

  “I don't like your attitude, Morelli.”

  The light whirled, and he lunged toward the door. “I don't much care what you think of my attitude. I'm not in a good mood. My witness is dead, and I can't find the damn murder weapon. Probably Ramirez will squeal like a pig, and I'll be exonerated, but until that happens I'm staying hidden.”

  “The hell you are. I can't believe it's in your best interest. Suppose some cop sees you and shoots you? Besides, I have a job to do, and I'm going to do it. I should never have made this deal with you.”

  “It was a good deal,” he said.

  “Would you have made it?”

  “No. But I'm not you. I have skills you could only dream about. And I'm a hell of a lot meaner than you'll ever be.”

  “You underestimate me. I'm pretty fucking mean.”

  Morelli grinned. “You're a marshmallow. Soft and sweet and when you get heated up you go all gooey and delicious.”

  I was rendered speechless. I couldn't believe just seconds before I'd been thinking friendly, protective thoughts about this oaf.

  “I'm a fast learner, Morelli. I made a few mistakes in the beginning, but I'm capable of bringing you in now.”

  “Yeah, right. What are you going to do, shoot me?”

  I wasn't soothed by his sarcasm. “The thought isn't without appeal, but shooting isn't necessary. All I have to do is close the door on you, you arrogant jerk.”

  In the dim light I saw his eyes widen as understanding dawned a nanosecond before I swung the heavy, insulated door shut. I heard the muffled thud of his body slam against the interior, but he was too late. The bolt was already in place.

  I adjusted the refrigeration temperature to forty. I figured that would be cold enough to keep the corpses from defrosting, but not so cold I'd turn Morelli into a popsicle on the ride back to Trenton. I climbed into the cab and cranked the motor over—compliments of Louis' keys. I lumbered out of the lot and onto the road and headed for the highway.

  Halfway home I found a pay phone and called Dorsey. I told him I was bringing Morelli in, but I didn't provide any details. I told him I'd be rolling into the station's back lot in about forty-five minutes and it'd be nice if he was waiting for me.

  I swung the truck into the driveway on North Clinton right on time and caught Dorsey and two uniforms in my headlights. I cut the engine, did some deep breathing to still my nervous stomach, and levered myself out of the cab.

  “Maybe you should have more than two uniforms,” I said. “I think Morelli might be mad.”

  Dorsey's eyebrows were up around his hairline. “You've got him in the back of the truck?”

  “Yeah. And he isn't alone.”

  One of the uniforms slid the bolt, the door flew open, and Morelli catapulted himself out at me. He caught me midbody, and we both went down onto the asphalt, thrashing and rolling and swearing at each other.

  Dorsey and the uniforms hauled Morelli off me, but he was still swearing and flailing his arms. “I'm gonna get you!” he was yelling at me. “When I get outta here I'm gonna get your ass. You're a goddamn luna
tic. You're a menace!”

  Two more patrolmen appeared, and the four uniforms wrestled Morelli through the back door. Dorsey lagged behind with me. “Maybe you should wait out here until he calms down,” he said.

  I picked some cinders out of my knee. “That might take a while.”

  I gave Dorsey the keys to the truck and explained about the drugs and Ramirez. By the time I was done explaining, Morelli had been moved upstairs, and the coast was clear for me to get my body receipt from the docket lieutenant.

  It was close to twelve when I finally let myself into my apartment, and my one real regret for the evening was that I'd left my blender at the marina. I truly needed a daiquiri. I locked my front door and tossed my shoulder bag onto the kitchen counter.

  I had mixed feelings about Morelli . . . not sure if I'd done the right thing. In the end, it hadn't been the retrieval money that had mattered. I'd acted on a combination of righteous indignation and my own conviction that Morelli should surrender himself.

  My apartment was dark and restful, lit only by the light in the hall. Shadows were deep in the living room, but they didn't generate fear. The chase was over.

  Some thought needed to be given to my future. Being a bounty hunter was much more complicated than I'd originally assumed. Still, it had its high points, and I'd learned a lot in the past two weeks.

  The heat wave had broken late in the afternoon and the temperature had dropped to a lovely seventy degrees. My curtains were closed, and a breeze played in the lightweight chintz. A perfect night for sleeping, I thought.

  I kicked my shoes off and sat on the edge of my bed, suddenly feeling mildly uneasy. I couldn't pinpoint the source of the problem. Something seemed off. I thought about my pocketbook far away on the kitchen counter, and my apprehension increased. Paranoia, I told myself. I was locked in my apartment, and if someone tried to come through the window, which was highly unlikely, I'd have time to stop them.

  Still, the ripple of anxiety nagged at me.

  I looked over at the window, at the gently billowing curtains, and cold understanding struck like a knife slice. When I'd left my apartment the window had been closed and locked. The window was open now. Jesus, the window was open. Fear skittered through me, snatching my breath away.

  Someone was in my apartment . . . or possibly waiting on my fire escape. I bit down hard on my lower lip to keep from wailing. Dear God, don't let it be Ramirez. Anyone but Ramirez. My heart beat with a ragged thud, and my stomach sickened.

  As I saw it, I had two choices. I could run for the front door or dive down the fire escape. That was assuming my feet would move. I decided chances were greater that Ramirez was in the apartment than on the fire escape, so I went to the window. On a sharp intake of breath I ripped the curtains open and stared at the latch. It was secure. A circle of glass had been removed from the top window, allowing Whoever to slip an arm through and open the lock. The cool night air whistled softly through the neatly cut circle.

  Professional, I thought. Maybe not Ramirez. Maybe just your garden variety second-story man. Maybe he'd gotten discouraged by my poverty, decided to move on to fatter pickings, and locked up after himself. I looked through the opening at the fire escape. It was empty and felt benign.

  Call the police and report the break-in, I told myself. The phone was at bedside. I punched it on and nothing happened. Shit. Someone must have disconnected it in the kitchen. A little voice in my head whispered to get out of the apartment. Use the fire escape, it said. Move fast.

  I turned back to the window and fumbled with the latch. I heard movement behind me, felt the intruder's presence. In the window's reflection I could see him standing in the open bedroom door, framed by the weak light from the hall.

  He called my name, and I felt my hair stand on end like the cartoon version of an electrocuted cat.

  “Close the curtains,” he said, “and turn around nice and slow so I can see you.”

  I did as I was told, squinting in the dark in blind confusion, recognizing the voice but not understanding the purpose. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

  “Good question.” He flipped the light switch. It was Jimmy Alpha, and he was holding a gun. “I ask myself that question all the time,” he said. “How did it come to this? I'm a decent man, you know? I try to do what's right.”

  “Doing what's right is good,” I told him.

  “What happened to all your furniture?”

  “I had some hard times.”

  He nodded. “Then you know what it's like.” He grinned. “That why you started working for Vinnie?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Vinnie and me, we're sort of alike. We do what we have to do to hang in there. I guess You're like that too.”

  I didn't like being lumped in with Vinnie, but I wasn't about to argue with a guy who was holding a gun. “I guess I am.”

  “You follow the fights?”

  “No.”

  He sighed. “A manager like me, waits a whole lifetime for a decent fighter to come along. Most managers die without ever getting one.”

  “But you got one. You have Ramirez.”

  “I took Bonito in when he was just a kid. Fourteen years old. I knew right away he was gonna be different from the others. There was something about him. Drive. Power. Talent.”

  Insanity, I thought. Don't forget insanity.

  “Taught him everything he knows about boxing. Gave him all my time. Made sure he ate right. Bought him clothes when he had no money. Let him sleep in the office when his mother was crazy on crack.”

  “And now he's champ,” I said.

  His smile was tight. “It's my dream. All my life I've worked for this.”

  I was beginning to see the direction of the conversation. “And he's out of control,” I said.

  Jimmy sagged against the doorjamb. “Yeah. He's out of control. He's gonna ruin everything . . . all the good times, all the money. I can't tell him anything, anymore. He don't listen.”

  “What are you going to do about it?”

  “Ahh,” Alpha sighed. "That's the big question. And the answer to the question is diversify. I diversify, I make a shitload of money, excuse my language, and I get out.

  “You know what it means to diversify? It means I take the money I make on Ramirez, and I invest it in other businesses. A chicken franchise, a laundromat, maybe even a butcher shop. Maybe I can get a butcher shop real cheap because the guy who owns it can't make good on some bad bets he took.”

  “Sal.”

  “Yeah. Sal. You got Sal real upset today. Bad timing, the way you walked in just when Louis got there, but I guess in the end it's gonna work out okay.”

  “I didn't realize Sal knew me.”

  “Honey, you're not hard to recognize. You don't got no eyebrows.”

  “Sal was worried that I spotted Louis.”

  "Yeah. So, he called me, and I said we should all meet at the marina. Louis was going to the marina anyway. There's a drop coming in tomorrow, and I'm thinking maybe I'm going to have to do Louis because he's such a fuck-up. The guy can't do anything right. He lets people see him at Carmen's, then he has to take care of them. He only gets two out of three. He can't score Morelli. The dumb shit found Morelli's car in your parking lot and didn't stop to think maybe Morelli wasn't driving it, so he ends up roasting Morty Beyers. Now you've got Louis fingered. I figure his time is up.

  “So I borrow Benito's car, and I go to the marina, and on the way I see you at the gas station, and I get a brilliant idea. Jimmy, I say to myself, this is your way out.”

  I was having a hard time following. I still didn't completely understand Jimmy's involvement. “Out of what?” I asked.

  "Out of the whole fucking mess. See, there's something you got to understand about me. I gave up a lot for the fight game. I never got around to getting married or to having a family. All my life I never had anything but boxing. When you're young, you don't mind. You keep thinking there's time. But then one day you wake up, and yo
u find out there's no more time.

  "I've got a fighter who likes to hurt people. It's a sickness. There's something messed up in his head, and I can't make it better. I know he's not gonna go the count on his career, so I take the money we make, and I buy a couple properties. Next thing I know I meet this Jamaican guy says he's got a better way to make money. Drugs. I make the buy, his organization does the distribution, I wash the money through my businesses and Ramirez. We do this for a while and it works real good. All we have to do is keep Ramirez out of jail so we can launder.

  “Problem is, I've got a lot of money now, and I can't get out. The organization's got me by my gonads, you know what I mean?”

 
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