Hard eight, p.25
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       Hard Eight, p.25

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  Piece of shit technology. I hate technology. Technology sucks.

  Okay, take it easy, I told myself. You don't want a repeat performance of the car window shoot-out. You don't want to go gonzo over a silly keypad. I took a couple deep breaths, and I fed the numbers into the keypad one more time. I grabbed the doorknob and pulled and twisted, but the door wouldn't open.

  “Goddamn!” I threw the keypad down on the floor and jumped up and down. “Damn, damn, damn!” I kicked the keypad all the way to the far end of the hall. I ran down the hall, unholstered my gun, and shot the keypad. BAM! The keypad jumped, and I shot it again.

  An Asian woman opened the door across the hall. She looked out at me, gave a gasp, pulled back inside, and closed and locked her door.

  “Sorry,” I called out to her, through the door. “I got carried away.”

  I retrieved the mangled keypad and skulked back to my half of the hall.

  My next door neighbor, Mrs. Karwatt, was in her doorway. “Are you having a problem, dear?” she asked.

  “I'm locked out of my apartment.” Fortunately, Mrs. Karwatt kept a key.

  Mrs. Karwatt gave me the spare key, I inserted it in the lock, and the door wouldn't open. I followed Mrs. Karwatt into her house, and I used her phone to call Ranger.

  “The frigging door won't open,” I said.

  “I'll send Hector.”

  “No! I can't understand Hector. I can't talk to him.” And he scares the bejeezus out of me.

  Twenty minutes later, I was sitting in the hall with my back to the wall, and Ranger and Hector showed up.

  “What's wrong?” Ranger asked.

  “The door won't open.”

  “Probably just a programming glitch. Do you have the keypad?”

  I dropped the keypad into his hand.

  Ranger and Hector looked down at the keypad. They looked up at each other, exchanged raised eyebrows, and smiled.

  “I think I see the problem,” Ranger said. “Someone's shot the shit out of this keypad.” He turned it over in his hand. “At least you were able to hit it. Nice to know the target practice paid off.”

  “I'm good at close range.”

  It took Hector twenty seconds to open my door and ten minutes to remove the sensors.

  “Let me know if you want the system put back in,” Ranger said.

  “I appreciate the thought, but I'd rather walk blindfolded into an apartment filled with alligators.”

  “Do you want to try your luck with another car? We could raise the stakes. I could give you a Porsche.”

  “Tempting, but no. I'm expecting an insurance check tomorrow. As soon as I get it, I'll have Lula drive me to a dealer.”

  Ranger and Hector took off, and I locked myself into my apartment. I'd worked out a lot of aggression shooting the keypad, and I felt much more mellow now. My heart was only skipping a beat once in a while, and the eye twitch was hardly noticeable. I ate the last lump of frozen cookie dough. It wasn't a Tastykake, but it was pretty good, all the same. I zapped the television on and found a hockey game.

  “UH-OH,” LULA SAID the next morning. “Was that a taxi that brought you to the office? What happened to Ranger's car?”

  “It burned up.”

  “Say what?”

  “And my bag was in it. I need to go shopping for a new handbag.”

  “I'm the woman for the job,” Lula said. “What time is it? Are the stores open yet?”

  It was ten o'clock, Monday morning. The stores were open. I'd reported my melted credit cards. I was ready to roll.

  “Hold on,” Connie said. “What about the filing?”

  “The filing's just about all done,” Lula said. She took a stack of files and shoved them into a drawer. “Anyway, we aren't gonna be long. Stephanie always gets the same boring bag. She goes straight to the Coach counter and gets one of them big-ass black leather shoulder bags, and that's the end of that.”

  “Turns out that my driver's license burned up, too,” I said. “I was hoping you might also give me a ride to the DMV.”

  Connie did a big eye roll. “Go.”

  IT WAS NOON when we got to Quaker Bridge Mall. I bought my shoulder bag, and then Lulu and I tested out some perfume. We were on the upper level, walking toward the escalators on our way to leave for the lot, and a familiar shape loomed in front of me.

  “You!” Martin Paulson said. “What is it with you? I can't get away from you.”

  “Don't start with me,” I said. “I'm not happy with you.”

  “Gee, that's too bad. I almost really care. What are you doing here today? Looking for somebody new to brutalize?”

  “I didn't brutalize you.”

  “You knocked me down.”

  “You fell down. Twice.”

  “I told you I have a bad sense of balance.”

  “Look, just get out of my way. I'm not going to stand here and argue with you.”

  “Yeah, you heard her,” Lula said. “Get out of her way.”

  Paulson turned to better see Lula, and apparently he was caught off guard by what he saw, because he lost his balance and fell backward, down the escalator. There were a couple people in front of him, and he knocked them over like bowling pins. They all landed in a heap on the floor.

  Lula and I scrambled down the escalator to the pile of bodies.

  Paulson seemed to be the only one who was hurt. “My leg's broken,” he said. “I bet you anything my leg's broken. I keep telling you, I have a problem with equilibrium. Nobody ever listens to me.”

  “There's probably a good reason why no one listens to you,” Lula said. “You look like a big bag of wind, if you ask me.”

  “It's all your fault,” Paulson said. “You scared the hell out of me. They should get the fashion police out after you. And what's with the yellow hair? You look like Harpo Marx.”

  “Hunh,” Lula said. “I'm outta here. I'm not standing here getting insulted. I got to get back to work anyway.”

  We were in the car at the exit to the parking lot, and Lula stopped short. “Hold on. Do I have my shopping bags in the backseat?”

  I turned and looked. “No.”

  “Damn! I must have dropped them when that sack of monkey doodie pushed me.”

  “No problem. Pull up to the door, and I'll run in and get them.”

  Lula drove to the entrance, and I retraced our steps, back to the middle of the mall. I had to walk past Paulson to get to the escalator. The EMTs had him on a stretcher and were getting ready to wheel him out. I took the escalator to the second level and found the shopping bags laying on the floor by the bench, right where Lula had left them.

  Thirty minutes later, we were back at the office, and Lula had her bags spread out on the couch. “Uh-oh,” she said. “We got one too many bags. You see this here big brown bag? It's not mine.”

  “It was on the floor with the other bags,” I said.

  “Oh boy,” Lula said. “Are you thinking what I'm thinking? I don't even want to look in that bag. I got a bad feeling about that bag.”

  “You were right about the bad feeling,” I said, looking into the bag. “There are a pair of pants in here that could only belong to Paulson. Plus a couple shirts. Oh crap, there's a box all wrapped up in happy birthday kid's wrapping paper.”

  “My suggestion is you throw that bag in the Dumpster, and you go wash your hands,” Lula said.

  “I can't do that. The guy just broke his leg. And there's a kid's birthday present in here.”

  “No big deal,” Lula said. “He can go onto the Internet and steal some more stuff and get another present.”

  “This is my fault,” I said. “I took Paulson's bag. I need to get it back to him.”

  There are several hospitals in the Trenton area. If Paulson was taken to St. Francis, I could walk up the street and give him his bag before he was discharged. And there was a good chance Paulson was at St. Francis because it was the closest hospital to his home.

  I called the switchboard and had t
hem check with ER. I was told Paulson was indeed in ER, and they expected him to be there a while longer.

  I wasn't looking forward to seeing Paulson, but it was a nice spring day, and it felt good to be outside. I decided I'd walk to the hospital, and then I'd walk to my parents' and mooch dinner and say hello to Rex. I had my new bag over my shoulder, and I was feeling confident because my gun was in my bag. Plus new lip gloss. Am I a professional, or what?

  I swung along Hamilton for a couple blocks and then cut off just before the hospital's main entrance and took the side street to the emergency entrance. I found the nurse in charge and asked her to give the bag to Paulson.

  So now I was off the hook, the bag was no longer my responsibility. I'd gone the extra mile to get it back to Paulson, and I left the hospital feeling all elated with my own goodness.

  My parents lived behind the hospital, in the heart of the Burg. I walked past the parking garage and paused at the intersection. It was midafternoon, and there were few cars on the roads. Schools were still in session. Restaurants were empty.

  A lone car rolled down the street and paused at the stop sign. A car was parked at the curb to my left. I heard a foot scrape against gravel. I turned my head at the sound. And the rabbit popped up from behind the parked car. He was fully suited this time.

  “Boo!” he said.

  I gave an involuntary shriek. He'd caught me by surprise. I shoved my hand into my bag in search of my gun, but a second person was suddenly in front of me, grabbing at my shoulder strap. It was the guy in the Clinton mask. If I could have gotten to my gun, I would gladly have shot them. And if it had been a single man, I might have been able to get to my gun. As it was, I was overpowered.

  I went down kicking and screaming and clawing with both men on top of me. The streets were deserted, but I was making a lot of noise and there were houses nearby. If I yelled loud enough and long enough I knew I'd be heard. The car in the intersection wheeled around and rolled to a stop inches away from us.

  The rabbit opened the back door and tried to drag me into the car. I was spread-eagle in the car door opening, hanging on with my fingernails, screaming my head off. The Clinton mask guy tried to grab my legs, and when he came in close I kicked out and caught him under the chin with my CAT. The guy staggered backward and keeled over. Crash! Flat on his back on the sidewalk.

  The driver was out of the car now. He was wearing a Richard Nixon mask, and I was pretty sure I recognized the build. I was pretty sure it was Darrow. I wriggled away from the rabbit. Hard to hold onto things when you're wearing a rabbit suit with rabbit paws. I tripped on the curb and went down on one knee. I scrambled up and took off, running for all I was worth. The rabbit ran after me.

  There was a car in the intersection, and I streaked past it yelling. My voice felt hoarse, and I was probably croaking more than yelling. The knee was torn out of my jeans, my arm was scratched and bleeding, and my hair was in my face, wild and tangled from rolling on the ground with the rabbit. I barely glanced at the car, noting only that it was silver. I could hear the rabbit behind me. My lungs were burning, and I knew I couldn't outrun him. I was too scared to think ahead. I was blindly running down the street.

  I heard the screech of wheels and a car motor getting gunned. Darrow, I thought. Coming to get me. I turned to look, and I saw it wasn't Darrow behind me. It was the silver car that had been in the intersection. It was a Buick LeSabre. And my mother was at the wheel. She ran flatout into the rabbit. The rabbit did a flip off the car in an explosion of fake fur and landed in a crumpled heap at the side of the road. The Darrow-driven car slid to a stop beside the rabbit. Darrow and the other rubber mask guy got out, scooped the rabbit up, dumped him into the backseat, and took off.

  My mother was stopped a few feet from me. I limped to the car, she popped the lock, and I got in.

  “Holy Mary, mother of God,” my mother said. “You were being chased by Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and a rabbit.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “Good thing you came along when you did.”

  “I ran over the rabbit,” she wailed. “I probably killed him.”

  “He was a bad rabbit. He deserved to die.”

  “He looked like the Easter bunny. I killed the Easter bunny,” she sobbed.

  I pulled a tissue out of my mother's purse and handed it to her. Then I looked through the purse more thoroughly. “You have any Valium in here? Any Klonapin or Ativan?”

  My mother blew her nose and put the car in gear. “Do you have any idea what it's like for a mother to drive down the street and see her daughter being chased by a rabbit? I don't know why you can't have a normal job. Like your sister.”

  I rolled my eyes. My sister again. Saint Valerie.

  “And she's dating a nice man,” my mother said. “I think he has honorable intentions. And he's a lawyer. He'll make a good living someday.” My mother drove back to the intersection, so I could retrieve my shoulder bag. “And what about you,” she wanted to know. “Who are you dating?”

  “Don't ask,” I said. I wasn't dating anyone. I was fornicating with Batman.

  “I'm not sure what I should do next,” my mother said. “Do you think I should report this to the police? What would I say to them? I mean, how would it sound? I was on my way to Giovichinni's for lunch meat when I saw a rabbit chasing my daughter down the street, so I ran over him, but now he's gone.”

  “Remember when I was a kid, and we were all going to the movies, and Daddy hit the dog on Roebling? We got out and looked for the dog, but we couldn't find him. He just ran off somewhere.”

  “I felt terrible about that.”

  “Yeah, but we went to the movies anyway. Maybe we should just go get the lunch meat.”

  “It was a rabbit,” my mother said. “And he had no business being in the road.”

  “Exactly.”

  We drove to Giovichinni's in silence and parked in front of the store. We both got out and looked at the front of the Buick. There was some rabbit fur stuck to the grille, but aside from that the LeSabre looked okay.

  While my mother was talking to the butcher, I stole off and called Morelli on the outside pay phone. “This is a little awkward,” I said, “but my mother just ran over the rabbit.”

  “Ran over?”

  “As in roadkill. We're not sure what to do about it.”

  “Where are you?”

  “Giovichinni's, buying lunch meat.”

  “And the rabbit?”

  “Gone. He was with two other guys. They scooped him up off the road and drove away with him.”

  There was a long silence on the phone. “I'm fucking speechless,” Morelli finally said.

  An hour later, I heard Morelli's truck pull up in front of my parents' house. He was in jeans and boots and a cotton crew with the sleeves pushed up. The crew was loose enough to hide the gun that was always at his waist.

  I'd showered and fixed my hair, but I didn't have fresh clothes to change into, so I was still in the torn, bloodstained jeans and dirt-smudged T-shirt. I had a ragged cut on my knee, a large scrape on my arm, and another on my cheek. I met Morelli on the porch and closed the door behind me. I didn't want Grandma Mazur joining us.

  Morelli gave me the long, slow lookover. “I could kiss that cut on your knee and make it all better.”

  A skill acquired from years of playing doctor.

  We sat side by side on the step, and I told him about the rabbit at the bakery and the attempted abduction at the intersection. “And I'm almost sure Darrow was driving,” I said.

  “Do you want me to have him brought in?”

  “No. I couldn't positively ID him.”

  Morelli's face broke into a smile. “Your mother really ran the rabbit over?”

  “She saw him chasing me. And she ran him over. Threw him about ten feet into the air.”

  “She likes you.”

  I nodded yes. And my eyes filled.

  A car drove by. Two men.

  “That could be them,” I said
. “Two of Abruzzi's guys. I try to be vigilant, but the cars are always different. And I only know Abruzzi and Darrow. The others have always had their faces covered. I have no good way of knowing when I'm being stalked. And it's worse at night when all I can see are lights coming and going.”

 
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