Hard eight, p.3
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       Hard Eight, p.3

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  We bellied up to the bar, and he found his way over to us. “Stephanie Plum,” he said. “Haven't seen you in a while. What'll it be?”

  “Mabel is worried about Annie. I told her I'd ask around.”

  “Worried about losing that wreck of a house is more like it.”

  “She won't lose the house. She has money to cover the bond.” Sometimes I fib just for practice. It's my one really good bounty hunter skill.

  “Too bad,” Soder said. “I'd like to see her sitting on the curb. That whole family is a car crash.”

  “So you think Evelyn and Annie just took off?”

  “I know they did. She left me a fucking letter. I went over there to pick the kid up and there was a letter for me on the kitchen counter.”

  “What did the letter say?”

  “It said she was taking off and next time I saw the kid would be never.”

  “Guess she don't like you, hunh?” Lula said.

  “She's nuts,” Soder said. “A drunk and a nut. She gets up in the morning and can't figure out how to button her sweater. I hope you find the kid fast because Evelyn isn't capable of taking care of her.”

  “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

  He made a derisive grunt. “Not a clue. She didn't have any friends, and she was dumb as a box of nails. So far as I can figure she didn't have much money. They're probably living out of the car somewhere in the Pine Barrens, eating from Dumpsters.”

  Not a pretty thought.

  I left my card on the bar. “In case you think of something helpful.”

  He took the card and winked at me.

  “Hey,” Lula said. “I don't like that wink. You wink at her again, and I'll rip your eye outta your head.”

  “What's with the fat chick?” Soder asked me. “The two of you going steady?”

  “She's my bodyguard,” I told him.

  “I'm not no fat chick,” Lula said. “I'm a big woman. Big enough to kick your nasty white ass around this room.”

  Soder locked eyes with her. “Something to look forward to.”

  I dragged Lula out of the bar, and we stood blinking on the sidewalk in the sunlight.

  “I didn't like him,” Lula said.

  “No kidding.”

  “I didn't like the way he kept calling his little girl the kid. And it wasn't nice that he wanted an old lady kicked out of her house.”

  I called Connie on my cell phone and asked her to get me Soder's home address and car information.

  “You think he got Annie in his cellar?” Lula asked.

  “No, but it wouldn't hurt to look.”

  “What's next?”

  “Next we visit Soder's divorce lawyer. There had to be some justification for setting the bond. I'd like to know the details.”

  “You know Soder's divorce lawyer?”

  I got in the car and looked over at Lula. “Dickie Orr.”

  Lula grinned. “Your ex? Every time we visit him he throws you out of the office. You think he's going to talk to you about a client?”

  I had had the shortest marriage in the history of the Burg. I'd barely finished unpacking my wedding presents when I caught the jerk on the dining room table with my arch-enemy, Joyce Barnhardt. Looking at it in retrospect I can't imagine why I married Orr in the first place. I suppose I was in love with the idea of being in love.

  There are certain expectations of girls from the Burg. You grow up, you get married, you have children, you spread out some in the beam, and you learn how to set a buffet for forty. My dream was that I would get irradiated like Spiderman and be able to fly like Superman. My expectation had been that I'd marry. I did the best I could to live up to the expectation, but it didn't work out. Guess I was stupid. Swayed by Dickie's good looks and education. My head turned by the fact that he was a lawyer.

  I didn't see the flaws. The low opinion Dickie has of women. The way he can lie without remorse. I guess I shouldn't fault him so much for that since I'm pretty good at lying myself. Still, I don't lie about personal things . . . like love and fidelity.

  “Maybe Dickie's having a good day,” I said to Lula. “Maybe he'll be feeling chatty.”

  “Yeah, and it might help if you don't leap across the desk and try to choke him like you did last time.”

  Dickie's office was on the other side of town. He'd left a large firm and gone off on his own. From what I could tell he was having some success. He was now located in a two-room suite in the Carter Building. I'd been there, briefly, once before and had sort of lost control.

  “I'll be better this time,” I said to Lula.

  Lula rolled her eyes and got into the CR-V.

  I took State Street to Warren and turned onto Sommerset. I found a parking space directly across from Dickie's building and took it as a sign.

  “Unh-uh,” Lula said. “You just got good parking karma. It don't count for interpersonal relationships. You read your horoscope today?”

  I looked over at her. “No. Was it bad?”

  “It said your moons weren't in a good spot, and you need to be careful about making money decisions. And not only that, you're going to have man trouble.”

  “I always have man trouble.” I had two men in my life, and I didn't know what to do with either of them. Ranger scared the bejeezus out of me, and Morelli had pretty much decided that unless I changed my ways I was more trouble than I was worth. I hadn't heard from Morelli in weeks.

  “Yeah, but this is going to be big trouble,” Lula said.

  “You're making that up.”

  “Am not.”

  “You are.”

  “Well, okay, maybe I made some of it up, but not the part about the man trouble.”

  I fed the meter a quarter and crossed the street. Lula and I entered the building and took the elevator to the third floor. Dickie's office was at the end of the hall. The sign beside the door read Richard Orr, Attorney. I resisted the urge to write asshole below the sign. I was, after all, a woman scorned, and that carried certain responsibilities. Still, best to write asshole on the way out.

  The reception area of Dickie's office was tastefully done up in industrial chic. Blacks and grays and the occasional purple upholstered chair. If the Jetsons had hired Tim Burton to decorate, it would have turned out like this. Dickie's secretary was seated behind a large mahogany desk. Caroline Sawyer. I recognized her from my last visit. She looked up when Lula and I entered. Her eyes widened in alarm, and she reached for the phone.

  “If you come any closer I'm calling the police,” she said.

  “I want to talk to Dickie.”

  “He isn't here.”

  “I bet she's fibbing,” Lula said. “I got a knack for knowing when people are fibbing.” Lula shook her finger at Sawyer. “The Lord don't like when people fib.”

  “Honest to God, he isn't here.”

  “Now you're blaspheming,” Lula said. “You're in big trouble now.”

  The door to Dickie's inner office opened, and Dickie stuck his head out. “Oh shit,” he said, spotting Lula and me. He pulled his head back and slammed his door shut.

  “I need to talk to you,” I yelled.

  “No. Go away. Caroline, call the police.”

  Lula leaned on Caroline's desk. “You call the police and I'll break one of your fingernails. You'll need a new manicure.”

  Caroline looked down at her nails. “I just got them done yesterday.”

  “They did a good job,” Lula said. “Where'd you go?”

  “Kim's Nails on Second Street.”

  “They're the best. I go there, too,” Lula said. “I got mine detailed this time. See, I got little-bitty stars painted on them.”

  Caroline looked over at Lula's nails. “Awesome,” she said.

  I scooted around Sawyer and knocked on Dickie's door. “Open up. I promise I won't try to choke you. I need to talk to you about Annie Soder. She's missing.”

  The door opened a crack. “What do you mean . . . missing?”

 
; “Evelyn apparently took off with her, and Les Sebring is enforcing the child custody bond.”

  The door opened all the way. “I was afraid this would happen.”

  “I'm trying to help find Annie. I was hoping you could give me some background information.”

  “I don't know how helpful I can be. I was Soder's attorney. Evelyn was represented by Albert Kloughn. There was so much acrimony during the divorce process, and so many threats were made on both sides, that the judge imposed the bonds.”

  “Soder had to post a bond, too?”

  “Yes, although Soder's was relatively meaningless. Soder owns a local business and isn't likely to flee. Evelyn, on the other hand, had nothing holding her here.”

  “What do you think of Soder?”

  “He was a decent client. Paid his bill on time. Got a little hot under the collar in court. There's no love lost between him and Evelyn.”

  “Do you think he's a good father?”

  Dickie did a palms-up. “Don't know.”

  “What about Evelyn?”

  “She never looked like she was totally with the program. A real space cadet. Probably in the kid's best interest to get found. Evelyn might misplace her and not realize it for days.”

  “Anything else?” I asked him.

  “No, but it doesn't seem right that you haven't gone for my throat,” Dickie said.

  “Disappointed?”

  “Yeah,” he said. “I bought pepper spray.”

  It would have been funny if it had been casual banter, but I suspected Dickie was serious. “Maybe next time.”

  “You know where to find me.”

  Lula and I sashayed out of the office, down the hall, and into the elevator.

  “That wasn't as much fun as last time,” Lula said. “You didn't even threaten him. You didn't chase him around the desk, or anything.”

  “I don't think I hate him as much as I used to.”

  “Bummer.”

  We crossed the street and stared at my car. It had a parking ticket on the window.

  “See this,” Lula said. “It's your moons. You made a bad money decision when you picked this busted meter.”

  I stuffed the ticket into my bag and wrenched the door open.

  “You better watch out,” Lula said. “The man trouble's gonna come next.”

  I called Connie and asked for an address for Albert Kloughn. In minutes I had Kloughn's business address and Soder's home address. Both were in Hamilton Township.

  We drove past Soder's home first. He lived in a complex of garden apartments. The buildings were two-story brick, decked out to be colonial style with white window shutters and white columns at the front doors. Soder's apartment was on the ground floor.

  “Guess he hasn't got the little girl in his cellar,” Lula said. “Since he hasn't got a cellar.”

  We sat and watched the apartment for a few minutes, but nothing happened, so we moved on to Kloughn.

  Albert Kloughn had a two-room office, next to a Laundromat, in a strip mall. There was a desk for a secretary but no secretary was in residence. Instead, Kloughn was at the desk, typing at the computer. He was my height and looked like he was approaching puberty. He had sandy-colored hair, a face like a cherub, and the body of the Pillsbury Doughboy.

  He looked up and smiled tentatively when we entered. Probably thought we were scrounging quarters to do our laundry. I could feel my feet vibrating from the drums tumbling next door, and there was a distant rumble from the large commercial washers.

  “Albert Kloughn?” I asked.

  He was wearing a white shirt, red-and-green striped tie, and khakis. He stood and self-consciously smoothed out his tie. “I'm Albert Kloughn,” he said.

  “Well, this is a big disappointment,” Lula said. “Where's the red nose that goes beep beep? And where're your big clown feet?”

  “I'm not that kind of clown. Yeesh. Everybody says that. Ever since kindergarten I've been hearing that. It's spelled 'K-1-o-u-g-h-n.' Kloughn!”

  “Could be worse,” Lula said. “You could be Albert Fuch.”

  I gave Kloughn my card. “I'm Stephanie Plum and this is my associate, Lula. I understand you represented Evelyn Soder in her divorce case.”

  “Wow,” he said, “are you really a bounty hunter?”

  “Bond enforcement,” I told him.

  “Yeah, that's a bounty hunter, right?”

  “About Evelyn Soder . . .”

  “Sure. What do you want to know? Is she in trouble?”

  “Evelyn and Annie are missing. And it looks like Evelyn took Annie away so she wouldn't have to visit her father. She left a couple notes.”

  “She must have had a good reason to leave,” Kloughn said. “She really didn't want to jeopardize her grandmother's house. She just didn't have any choice. She had no place to turn for the bond money.”

  “Any ideas where Evelyn and Annie might have gone?”

  Kloughn shook his head. “No. Evelyn didn't talk much. From what I could tell, her entire family lived in the Burg. I don't want to be mean or anything, but she didn't impress me as being real bright. I'm not even sure she could drive. She always had someone bring her to the office.”

  “Where's your secretary?” Lula asked him.

  “I don't have a secretary right now. I used to have someone who came in part-time, but she said the lint blowing around from the dryers bothered her sinuses. Probably I should put an ad in the paper, but I'm not real organized. I only opened this office a couple months ago. Evelyn was one of my first clients. That's why I remember her.”

  Probably Evelyn was his only client. “Did she pay her bill?”

  “She's paying it off monthly.”

  “If she mails in a check, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know where it was postmarked.”

  “I was just gonna suggest that,” Lula said. “I thought of that, too.”

  “Yeah, me, too,” Kloughn said. “I was thinking the same thing.”

  A woman rapped on Kloughn's open door and stuck her head in. “The dryer at the far end don't work. It took all my quarters, and now it's just doing nothing. And on top of that, I can't get the door open.”

  “Hey,” Lula said, “do we look like we care? This man's an attorney-at-law. He don't give a rat's ass about your quarters.”

  “This happens all the time,” Kloughn said. He pulled a form from his top desk drawer. “Here,” he said to the woman. “Fill this out and the management will refund your money.”

  “They gonna comp your rent for that?” Lula asked Kloughn.

  “No. They'll probably evict me.” He looked around the room. “This is my third office in six months. I had an accidental wastebasket fire in my first office that sort of spread throughout the building. And the office after that got condemned when there was a toilet incident above it and the roof caved in.”

  “Public restroom?” Lula asked.

  “Yes. But I swear it wasn't me. I'm almost positive.”

  Lula looked at her watch. “It's my lunchtime.”

  “Hey, how about if I go to lunch with you guys,” Kloughn said. “I have some ideas on this case. We could talk about it over lunch.”

  Lula cut her eyes to him. “Haven't got anybody to eat lunch with, hunh?”

  “Sure, I've got lots of people to eat lunch with. Everybody wants to eat lunch with me. I didn't make any plans for today, though.”

  “You're an accident waiting to happen,” Lula said. “We eat lunch with you we'll probably get food poisoning.”

  “If you were really sick I could get you some money,” he said. “And if you died it would be big money.”

  “We're only getting fast food,” I said.

  His eyes lit up. “I love fast food. It's always the same. You can count on it. No surprises.”

  “And it's cheap,” Lula said.

  “Exactly!”

  He put a small out to lunch sign in his office window and locked the door behind himself. He climbed into the backseat of the CR-V and
leaned forward.

  “What are you, part golden retriever?” Lula asked. “You're breathing on me. Sit back in your seat. Put your seat belt on. And if you start drooling, you're outta here.”

 
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