Hard eight, p.23
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       Hard Eight, p.23

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  I flipped the lights on . . . every single light I owned. I walked room to room, avoiding the cootie couch. I went back to the kitchen, removed six cookies from the bag of frozen chocolate chip cookies, and put them on a cookie sheet. I popped them into the oven and stood there, waiting. Five minutes later, the house smelled like homemade cookies. Bolstered by cookie fumes, I marched into the living room and looked at the couch. The couch looked fine. No stains. No dead body imprint.

  You see, Stephanie, I said to myself. The couch is okay. No reason to be creeped out by the couch.

  Hah! An invisible Irma whispered in my ear. Everyone knows you can't see death cooties. Take my word for it, that couch has the biggest, fattest death cooties that ever existed. That couch has the mother of all death cooties.

  I tried to sit on the couch but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Soder and the couch were fixed together in my mind. Sitting on the couch was like sitting on Soder's dead, sawed-in-half lap. The apartment was too small for both me and the couch. One of us was going to have to go.

  “Sorry,” I said to the couch. “Nothing personal, but you're history.” I put my weight behind one end, and I pushed the couch across the living room, into the small entrance foyer in front of the kitchen, out the front door, and into the hall. I positioned it against the wall between my apartment and Mrs. Karwatt's apartment. Then I ran back into my apartment, closed my door, and did a sigh. I knew there were no such things as death cooties. Unfortunately, that's an intellectual fact. And death cooties are an emotional reality.

  I took the cookies out of the oven, put them on a plate, and carted them off to the living room. I zapped the television on and found a movie. Irma hadn't said anything about death cooties on the remote, so I assumed death cooties didn't stick to electronic devices. I pulled a dining room chair over to the television, ate two of the cookies, and watched the movie.

  Halfway through the movie, the doorbell rang. It was Ranger. Dressed in his usual black. Full utility belt, looking like Rambo. Hair tied back. He stood there in silence when I opened the door. The corners of his mouth tipped slightly into the promise of a smile.

  “Babe, your couch is in the hall.”

  “It has death cooties.”

  “I knew there'd be a good explanation.”

  I shook my head at him. “You're such a show-off.” Not only had he placed me at the track, his horse had paid off five to one.

  “Even superheroes need to have fun once in a while,” he said, looking me over, brushing past me, walking into the living room. “It smells like you're marking your territory with chocolate chip cookies.”

  “I needed something to chase away the demons.”

  “Any problems?”

  “Nope.” Not since I pushed the couch into the hall. “So what's up?” I said. “You look like you're dressed for work.”

  “I had to secure a building earlier this evening.”

  I'd once been with him when his team secured a building. It involved throwing a drug dealer out a third-story window.

  He took a cookie off the plate on the floor. “Frozen?”

  “Not anymore.”

  “How'd it go at the track?”

  “I ran into Eddie Abruzzi.”

  “And?”

  “We had words. I didn't find out as much as I'd hoped, but I'm convinced Evelyn has something he wants.”

  “I know what it is,” Ranger said, eating his cookie.

  I stared at him openmouthed. “What is it?”

  He smiled. “How bad do you want to know?”

  “Are we playing?”

  He slowly shook his head no. “This isn't play.” He backed me against the wall, and he leaned into me. His leg slid between mine, his lips brushed lightly across my lips. “How bad do you want to know, Steph?” he asked again.

  “Tell me.”

  “It'll get added to the debt.”

  Like I was going to worry about that now? I was in way over my credit limit weeks ago! “Are you going to tell me, or what?”

  “Remember I told you Abruzzi is a war gainer? Well, he does more than game. He collects memorabilia. Old guns, army uniforms, military medals. And he doesn't just collect them. He wears them. Mostly when he games. Sometimes when he's with women, I'm told. Sometimes when he's settling a bad debt. Word on the street is that Abruzzi is missing a medal. Supposedly the medal belonged to Napoleon. The story being told is that Abruzzi tried to buy the medal, but the guy who owned it wouldn't sell it, so Abruzzi killed him and took the medal. Abruzzi kept the medal on his desk at his house. He wore it when he gamed. Believed it made him invincible.”

  “And this is what Evelyn has? The medal?”

  “That's what I hear.”

  “How did she get it?”

  “I don't know.”

  He moved against me and desire skittered through my stomach and burned low in my belly. He was hard everywhere. His thigh, his gun . . . everything was hard.

  He lowered his head and kissed my neck. He touched his tongue to the place he just kissed. And then he kissed it again. His hand slid under my T-shirt, his palm heating my skin, his fingers at the base of my breast.

  “Pay-up time,” he said. “I'm collecting on the debt.”

  I almost collapsed onto the floor.

  He took my hand and tugged me toward the bedroom. “The movie,” I said. “The best part of the movie is coming up.” In all honesty, I couldn't remember a single thing about the movie. Not the name or anyone in it.

  He was standing close, his face inches from mine, his hand at the back of my neck. “We're going to do this, babe,” he said. “It's going to be good.” And then he kissed me. The kiss deepened, became more demanding, more intimate.

  I had my hands splayed over his chest, and I felt the toned muscle under my hands, felt his heart beating. So he has a heart, I thought. That's a good sign. He must be at least part human.

  He broke from the kiss and pushed me into the bedroom. He kicked his boots off, dropped his gun belt, and he stripped. The light was low, but it was enough to see that what Ranger promised in SWAT clothes was kept when the clothes were shed. He was all firm muscle and smooth dark skin. His body was in perfect proportion. His eyes were intense and focused.

  He peeled my clothes off and wrangled me onto the bed. And then suddenly he was inside me. He once told me that time spent with him would ruin me for all other men. When he said it, I thought it was an outrageous threat. I no longer thought it outrageous.

  We lay together for a while when we were done. Finally he ran his hand the length of my body. “It's time,” he said.

  “Now what?”

  “You didn't think the debt would be paid that easily, did you?”

  “Uh-oh, is this the part with the handcuffs?”

  “I don't need handcuffs to enslave a woman,” Ranger said, kissing my shoulder.

  He kissed me lightly on my lips and then dipped his head to kiss my chin, my neck, my collarbone. He moved lower, kissing the swell of my breast and my nipple. He kissed my navel and then my belly, and then he put his mouth to my . . . omigod!

  HE WAS STILL in my bed the next morning. He was pressed next to me, his arm holding me close. I woke to the sound of the alarm on his watch. He shut the alarm off and rolled away to check the pager that had been placed on the nightstand, next to his gun.

  “I have to go, babe,” he said. And he was dressed. And he was gone.

  Oh shit. What did I do? I just did it with the Wizard. Holy crap! Okay, calm down. Let's examine this more sanely. What just happened here? We did it. And he left. The leaving seemed a smidgen abrupt, but then it was Ranger. What did I expect? And he hadn't been abrupt last night. He'd been . . . amazing. I sighed and heaved myself out of bed. I showered and dressed and went into the kitchen to say good morning to Rex. Only there was no Rex. Rex was living with my parents.

  The house felt empty without Rex, so I packed myself off to my parents'. It was Sunday and there was the added incentive of doug
hnuts. My mother and grandmother always bought doughnuts on their way home from church.

  The horse kid was galloping through the house in her Sunday School dress. She stopped galloping when she saw me and her face grew thoughtful. “Have you found Annie yet?”

  “No,” I said. “But I talked to her mom on the phone.”

  “Next time you talk to her mom you should tell her Annie's missing stuff at school. Tell her I got put in the Black Stallion reading group.”

  “You're telling another whopper,” Grandma said. “You're in the Blue Bird reading group.”

  “I don't want to be a blue bird,” Annie said. “Blue birds are poopy. I want to be a black stallion.” And she galloped away.

  “I love that kid,” I said to Grandma.

  “Yep,” Grandma said. “She reminds me a lot of you when you were that age. Good imagination. It comes from my side of the family. Except it skipped a generation with your mother. Your mother and Valerie and Angie are blue birds through and through.”

  I helped myself to a doughnut and poured out a cup of coffee.

  “You look different,” Grandma said to me. “I can't put my finger on it. And you've been smiling ever since you walked in.”

  Damn Ranger. I noticed the smile when I brushed my teeth. It wouldn't go away! “Amazing what a good night's sleep can do for you,” I said to Grandma.

  “I wouldn't mind having a smile like that,” Grandma said.

  Valerie came to the table, looking morose. “I don't know what to do about Albert,” she said.

  “Not got a two-bathroom house?”

  “He lives with his mother, and he has less money than I do.”

  No surprises there. “Good men are hard to find,” I said. “And when you find them, there's always something wrong with them.”

  Valerie looked in the doughnut bag. “It's empty. Where's my doughnut?”

  “Stephanie ate it,” Grandma said.

  “I only had one!”

  “Oh,” Grandma said, “then maybe it was me. I had three.”

  “We need more doughnuts,” Valerie said. “I have to have a doughnut.”

  I grabbed my bag and hiked it onto my shoulder. “I'll get more. I could use another one, too.”

  “I'll go with you,” Grandma said. “I want to ride in your shiny black car. I don't suppose you'd let me drive?”

  My mother was at the stove. “Don't you dare let her drive. I'm holding you responsible. If she drives and gets in an accident, you're going to be the one visiting her in the nursing home.”

  We went to Tasty Pastry on Hamilton. I worked there when I was in high school. Gave away my virginity there, too. Behind the eclair case, after-hours, with Morelli. I'm not sure how it happened. One minute I was selling him a cannoli and next thing I knew I was on the floor with my pants down. Morelli's always been good at talking the pants off women.

  I parked in the small lot on the side of Tasty Pastry. The after-church rush was over, and the lot was empty. There were seven parking slots that went nose in to the red brick wall of the bakery, and I parked square in the middle slot.

  Grandma and I went into the bakery and picked out another dozen doughnuts. Probably overkill, but better to have too many than to be doughnut deprived.

  We came out of the bakery, and we were approaching Ranger's CR-V when a green Ford Explorer careened into the lot and came to a screeching halt next to us. The driver had a rubber Clinton mask over his face, and the passenger seat was occupied by the rabbit.

  My heart went ka-thunk in my chest, and I got a rush of adrenaline. “Run,” I said, shoving Grandma, plunging my hand into my bag to find my gun. “Run back to the bakery.”

  The guy in the rubber mask and the guy in the rabbit suit were out of the car before it stopped rolling. They rushed at Grandma and me with guns drawn and herded us between the two cars. The rubber mask guy was of average height and build. He was wearing jeans and running shoes and a Nike jacket. The rabbit was wearing the big rabbit head and street clothes.

  “Against the car, and hands where I can see them,” the mask guy said.

  “Who are you supposed to be?” Grandma asked. “You look like Bill Clinton.”

  “Yeah, I'm Bill Clinton,” the guy said. “Get against the car.”

  “I never understood that part about the cigar,” Grandma said.

  “Get against the car!”

  I backed against the car and my mind was racing. Cars were moving on the street in front of us, but we were hidden from sight. If I screamed I doubted I'd be heard by anyone, unless someone walked by on the sidewalk.

  The rabbit got up close to me. “Thaaa id ya raa raa da haaar id ra raa.”

  “What?”

  “Haaar id ra raa.”

  “We can't figure out what you're saying, on account of you're wearing that big stupid rabbit head,” Grandma said.

  “Raa raa,” the rabbit said. “Raa raa!”

  Grandma and I looked over at Clinton.

  Clinton shook his head in disgust. “I don't know what he's saying, What the hell's raa raa?” he asked the rabbit.

  “Haaar id ra raa.”

  “Christ,” Clinton said. “Nobody can understand you. Haven't you ever tried to talk in that thing before?”

  The rabbit gave Clinton a shove. “Ra raa, you fraaakin' aar ho.”

  Clinton flipped the rabbit the bird.

  “Jaaaark,” the rabbit said. And then he unzipped his pants and pulled out his wanger. He waggled his wanger at Clinton. And then he waggled it at Grandma and me.

  “I remember them as being bigger than that,” Grandma said.

  The rabbit yanked and pulled at himself and managed to get half a hard-on.

  “Rogga. Ga rogga,” the rabbit said.

  “I think he's trying to tell you this is a preview,” Clinton said. “Something to look forward to.”

  The rabbit was still working it. He'd found his rhythm, and he was really whacking away.

  “Maybe you should help him out,” Clinton said to me. “Go ahead. Touch it.”

  My lip curled back. “What are you nuts? I'm not touching it!”

  “I'll touch it,” Grandma said.

  “Kraaa,” the rabbit said. And his wanger wilted a little.

  A car turned off the street, into the lot, and Clinton gave the rabbit a shot in the arm. “Let's roll.”

  They backed up, still holding us at gunpoint. Both men jumped into the Explorer and took off.

  “Maybe we should have got some cannoli,” Grandma said. “I got a sudden taste for cannoli.”

  I loaded Grandma into the CR-V and drove her back to the house.

  “We saw that rabbit again,” Grandma told my mother. “The one who gave me the pictures. I think he must live by the bakery. This time he showed us his ding-a-ling.”

  My mother was justifiably horrified.

  “Was he wearing a wedding band?” Valerie asked.

  “I didn't notice,” Grandma said. “I wasn't looking at his hand.”

  “You were held at gunpoint and sexually assaulted,” I said to Grandma. “Weren't you frightened? Aren't you upset?”

  “They weren't real guns,” Grandma said. “And we were in the parking lot to the bakery. Who would be serious about something like that in a bakery parking lot?”

  “They were real guns,” I said.

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yes.”

  “Maybe I'll sit down,” Grandma said. “I thought that rabbit was just one of those exhibitionists. Remember Sammy the Squirrel? He was always dropping his drawers in people's backyards. Sometimes we'd give him a sandwich after.”

  The Burg has had its share of exhibitionists, some mentally challenged, some drunk beyond reason, some just out for a good time. For the most part, the attitude is eyerolling tolerance. Once in a while someone drops his drawers in the wrong backyard and ends up with an ass filled with buckshot.

  I called Morelli and told him about the rabbit. “He was with Clinton,” I
said. “And they weren't getting along all that great.”

 
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