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One for the money, p.3
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       One for the Money, p.3

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  Another moment passed, and I could almost hear him silently swearing, debating the wisdom of opening the door. I did a little finger wave at the peephole. It was tentative, nonthreatening. It told him I was a piece of fluff, and I knew he was there.

  The bolt slid back, the door was yanked open, and I found myself face to face with Morelli.

  His stance was passive-aggressive, his voice laced with impatience. “What?”

  He was more solid than I'd remembered. More angry. His eyes were more remote, the line of his mouth more cynical. I'd come looking for a boy who might have killed out of passion. I suspected the man standing in front of me would kill with professional detachment.

  I took a moment to steady my voice, to formulate the lie. “I'm looking for Joe Juniak . . .”

  “You got the wrong apartment. There's no Juniak here.”

  I feigned confusion. Forced a tight smile. “Sorry . . .” I took a step backward and was about to bolt down the stairs when recognition hit Morelli.

  “Jesus Christ!” he said. “Stephanie Plum?”

  I was familiar with the tone of voice and the sentiment behind it. My father used that same tone when he caught the Smullens' dog lifting its leg on his hydrangea bush. Fine by me, I told myself. Get it straight from the beginning there was no love lost between us. That made my job easier.

  “Joseph Morelli,” I said. “What a surprise.”

  His expression narrowed. “Yeah. Almost as surprising as when you nailed me with your father's car.”

  In the interest of avoiding confrontation, I felt compelled to explain. I didn't feel obliged to do it convincingly. “It was an accident. My foot slipped.”

  “That was no accident. You jumped the goddamn curb and followed me down the sidewalk. You could have killed me.” He leaned beyond the doorjamb and looked the length of the hallway. “So what are you really doing here? You read about me in the papers and decide my life wasn't fucked up enough?”

  My plan evaporated in a rush of pique. “I could care less about your fucked-up life,” I snapped. “I'm working for my cousin Vinnie. You're in violation of your bond agreement.”

  Good going, Stephanie. Wonderful control.

  He grinned. “Vinnie sent you to bring me in?”

  “You think that's funny?”

  “Yeah, I do. And I have to tell you, I really enjoy a good joke these days, because I haven't had much to laugh about lately.”

  I could appreciate his point of view. If I was looking at twenty years to life, I wouldn't be laughing either. “We need to talk.”

  “Talk fast. I'm in a hurry.”

  I figured I had about forty seconds to convince him to give himself up. Hit him with the heavy stuff right off, I thought. Appeal to his familial guilt. “What about your mother?”

  “What about her?”

  “She signed the bond agreement. She's going to be responsible for $100,000. She'll have to mortgage her house. And what will she say to everyone, that her son Joe was too cowardly to stand trial?”

  The contours of his face hardened. “You're wasting your time. I have no intention of going back into custody. They'll lock me up and throw away the key, and in the process I stand an excellent chance of getting dead. You know what happens to cops in prison. It's not nice. And if you want to know more of the ugly truth, you'd be the last person I'd let collect the bounty money. You're a lunatic. You ran me over with a goddamn Buick.”

  I'd been telling myself I didn't give a hoot about Morelli and his opinion of me, but in all honesty, his animosity hurt. Deep down inside, I'd wanted him to hold a tender feeling for me. I wanted to ask him why he'd never called after he'd seduced me in the bakery. Instead, I yelled at him. “You deserved to get run over. And besides, I barely tapped you. The only reason you broke your leg was because you panicked and tripped over your own feet.”

  “You're lucky I didn't sue you.”

  “You're lucky I didn't put the car into reverse and back over you three or four times.”

  Morelli rolled his eyes and threw his hands into the air. “I gotta go. I'd love to stand around and try to understand female logic . . .”

  “Female logic? Excuse me?”

  Morelli turned from the door, shrugged into a lightweight sports coat, and grabbed the black nylon duffel from the floor. “I've got to get out of here.”

  “Where are you going?”

  He nudged me aside, shoved an ugly black gun under the waistband of his Levis, locked his door, and pocketed the key. “None of your business.”

  “Listen.” I said, following him down the stairs. “I may be new at this apprehension stuff, but I'm not stupid, and I'm not a quitter. I told Vinnie I'd bring you in and that's exactly what I intend to do. You can run if you want, but I'll track you down and find you, and I'll do whatever is necessary to apprehend you.”

  What a load of bull! I couldn't believe I was saying it. I'd been lucky to find him this first time, and the only way I was ever going to apprehend him was if I stumbled upon him already bound, gagged, and knocked unconscious. Even then, I wasn't sure how far I could drag him.

  He left through a back entrance and headed for a latemodel car parked close to the building. “Don't bother tracing the plate,” he said. “The car is borrowed. I'll have a different one an hour from now. And, don't waste your energy following me. I'll lose you. I guarantee it.”

  He dumped the duffel onto the front seat, started to get into the car, and stopped. He turned and straightened, hooked an elbow over the door frame, and for the first time since I'd popped up on his doorstep he took a few moments to actually look at me. The first rush of angry emotion was gone, and in its place was quiet assessment. This was the cop, I thought. The Morelli I didn't know. The grownup Morelli, if such an animal existed. Or maybe it was just the old Morelli, looking for a new angle.

  “I like the way you've let your hair go curly,” he finally said. “Suits your personality. Lots of energy, not much control, sexy as hell.”

  “You know nothing about my personality.”

  “I know about the sexy as hell part.”

  I felt my face burn. “Tactless of you to remind me.”

  Morelli grinned. “You're right. And, you could be right about the Buick business, too. I probably deserved to get run over.”

  “Was that an apology?”

  “No. But you can hold the flashlight next time we play train.”

  * * * * *

  IT WAS ALMOST ONE when I returned to Vinnie's office. I slouched in a chair by Connie's desk and tipped my head back to get maximum benefit from the air-conditioning.

  “You been out jogging?” Connie asked. “I haven't seen that much sweat since Nixon.”

  “My car doesn't have air.”

  “Bummer. How's it going with Morelli? You get any leads?”

  “That's why I'm here. I need help. This capturing stuff isn't as easy as it sounds. I need to talk to someone who's an expert at this job.”

  “I know just the guy. Ranger. His full name is Ricardo Carlos Mañoso. Second generation Cuban-American. Was Special Forces. Works for Vinnie now. He makes apprehensions other agents only dream about. He gets a little creative sometimes, but hey, that's the way it is with a genius, right?”

  “Creative?”

  “Doesn't always play by the rules.”

  “Oh.”

  “Like Clint Eastwood in that Dirty Harry movie,” Connie said. “You don't have a problem with Clint Eastwood, do you?”

  She punched a number on her speed dial, connected with Mañoso's pager, and left a call-back message. “Not to worry,” she said, smiling. “This guy'll tell you everything you need to know.”

  An hour later, I sat across from Mañoso in a downtown cafe. His straight black hair was slicked back in a ponytail. His biceps looked like they'd been carved out of granite and buffed up with Armour-all. He was around 5'10" with a muscular neck and a don't-mess-with-me body. I placed him in his late twenties.

  He leaned b
ack and grinned. “Sooooo, Connie says I'm supposed to make you into a badass fugitive apprehension agent. She says you need to get the crash course. What's the rush?”

  “You see the brown Nova at the curb?”

  His eyes swiveled to the front window. “Un huh.”

  “That's my car.”

  He gave an almost imperceptible nod. “So you need money. Anything else?”

  “Personal reasons.”

  “Bond enforcement is dangerous business. Those personal reasons better be pretty fucking good.”

  “What are your reasons for doing this?”

  He did a palms up gesture. “It's what I do best.”

  Good answer, I thought. More eloquent than mine. “Maybe someday I'll be good at this too. Right now my motive is steady employment.”

  “Vinnie give you a skip?”

  “Joseph Morelli.”

  He tipped his head back and laughed, and the sound boomed off the walls of the little sandwich shop. “Oh, man! Are you kidding me? You aren't gonna get that dude. This isn't some street punk you're going after. This guy's smart. And he's good. You know what I'm telling you?”

  “Connie says you're good.”

  “There's me, and then there's you, and you aren't ever gonna be as good as me, Sweet Thing.”

  At the best of times my patience was lacking, and this wasn't nearly the best of times. “Let me make my position clear to you,” I said, leaning forward. “I'm out of work. I've had my car repossessed, my refrigerator is empty I'm going to get kicked out of my apartment, and my feet don't fit in these shoes. I haven't got a lot of energy to waste socializing. Are you going to help me or what?”

  Mañoso grinned. “This is gonna be fun. This here's gonna be like Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle Does Trenton.”

  “What do I call you?” I asked him.

  “My street name. Ranger.”

  He reached across the table and took the paperwork I'd brought. He scanned the bond agreement. “You do anything on this yet? You check out his apartment?”

  “He wasn't there, but I got lucky and found him in an apartment on State Street. I got there just as he was leaving.”

  “And?”

  “He left.”

  “Shit,” Ranger said. “Didn't anybody tell you that you were supposed to stop him?”

  “I asked him to come to the police station with me, but he said he didn't want to.”

  Another bark of laughter. “I don't suppose you've got a gun?”

  “You think I should get one?”

  “Might be a good idea,” he said, still beaming. He finished reading the bond agreement. “Morelli offed a guy named Ziggy Kulesza. Used his personal piece to put a .45 hydroshock between Ziggy's eyes at close range.” Ranger glanced up at me. “You know anything about guns?”

  “I know I don't like them.”

  “A .45 hydroshock goes in nice and neat, but when it comes out it makes a hole the size of a potato. You end up with brains all over the place. Ziggy's head probably exploded like an egg in a microwave.”

  “Gee, I'm glad you shared that with me.”

  His smile lit up the room. “I figured you'd want to know.” He tipped back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “You know any of the background on this case?”

  "According to newspaper articles Morty Beyers clipped to the bond agreement, the shooting took place late at night a little over a month ago in an apartment building on Shaw. Morelli was off duty and had gone to visit Carmen Sanchez. Morelli claimed Carmen had called him concerning a police matter, that he'd responded, and that when he got to Carmen's apartment, Ziggy Kulesza answered the door and drew on him. Morelli claimed he shot Ziggy in self-defense.

  "Carmen's neighbors told a different story. Several of them rushed into the hall at the sound of gunfire and found Morelli standing over Kulesza with a smoking gun. One of the tenants subdued Morelli until the police arrived. None of the tenants could remember seeing a gun in Ziggy's hand, and the immediate investigation didn't turn up any evidence that Ziggy had been armed.

  “Morelli had placed a second man in Carmen's apartment at the time of the shooting, and three of the tenants remembered seeing an unfamiliar face, but the man apparently disappeared before the police came on the scene.”

  “And what about Carmen?” Ranger asked.

  “No one could remember seeing Carmen. The last article was written a week after the shooting, and as of that date, Carmen still hadn't surfaced.”

  Ranger nodded. “You know anything else?”

  “That's about it.”

  “The guy Morelli shot worked for Benito Ramirez. The name mean anything?”

  “Ramirez is a boxer.”

  “More than a boxer. He's a fucking wonder. Heavyweight. The biggest thing to happen to Trenton since George shafted the Hessians. Trains in a gym on Stark Street. Ziggy used to stick to Ramirez like white on rice. Sometimes Ziggy'd do some sparring. Mostly Ramirez kept him on as a gofer and a bodyguard.”

  “There any word on the street about why Morelli shot Kulesza?”

  Ranger gave me a slow stare. “None. But Morelli must have had a good reason. Morelli's a cool guy, and if a cop wants to pop someone, there are ways.”

  “Even cool cops make mistakes.”

  “Not like this, babe. Not Morelli.”

  “So what are you telling me?”

  “I'm telling you to be careful.”

  All of a sudden I had a sick feeling in my stomach. This wasn't just some slick adventure I was embarking upon to make a fast buck. Catching Morelli would be difficult. And turning him back in to the court would feel mean. He wasn't my favorite person, but I didn't hate him enough to want to see him spend the rest of his life in prison.

  “You still want to tag him?” Ranger asked.

  I was silent.

  “If you don't do it, someone else will,” Ranger said. “That's something you got to learn. And, you got no business making judgments. You just do your job, and bring the man in. Got to trust in the system.”

  “Do you trust in the system?”

  “Beats the shit out of anarchy.”

  “There's a lot of money involved here. If you're so good, why didn't Vinnie give Morelli to you? Why did he originally give him to Morty Beyers?”

  “Vinnie moves in mysterious ways.”

  “Anything else I should know about Morelli?”

  “If you want your money, you better find your man fast. Rumor has it the judicial system is the least of his problems.”

  “Are you telling me there's a contract out on him?”

  Ranger made a gun sign with his hand. “Bang.”

  “You sure about this rumor?”

  He shrugged. “Just repeating what I heard.”

  “The plot thickens,” I said to Ranger.

  “Like I said before, you don't care about the plot. Your job is simple. Find the man, bring him in.”

  “Do you think I can do it?”

  “No.”

  If he was trying to discourage me, that was the wrong answer. “Will you help me anyway?”

  “Long as you don't tell nobody. Wouldn't want to tarnish my image by looking like a good guy.”

  I nodded. “Okay, where do I begin?”

  “First thing we need to do is get you outfitted. And while we collect your hardware, I'm gonna tell you about the law.”

  “This isn't going to be expensive, is it?”

  “My time and knowledge are coming to you free of charge because I like you, and I always wanted to be Professor Higgins, but handcuffs cost $40 a pair. You got plastic?”

  I was all out of plastic. I'd hocked my few pieces of good jewelry and sold my living room sleep sofa to one of my neighbors to make my charge card payments. My major appliances had gone for the Nova. The only thing left was a small cache of emergency money which I'd steadfastly refused to touch. I'd been saving it to use on orthopedic reconstruction after the bill collectors broke my knees.

&nb
sp; Well hell, it probably wasn't nearly enough money for new knees anyway. “I have a few dollars set aside,” I said.

  * * * * *

  I DROPPED MY NEW BIG BLACK LEATHER SHOULDER BAG on the floor by my chair and took my place at the dinner table. My mother and father and Grandma Mazur were already seated, waiting to hear to hear how it went with Vinnie.

 
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