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One for the money, p.4
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       One for the Money, p.4

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “You're twelve minutes late,” my mother said. “I was listening for sirens. You weren't in an accident, were you?”

  “I was working.”

  “Already?” She turned to my father. “The first day on the job and your cousin has her working overtime. You should talk to him, Frank.”

  “It's not like that,” I told her. “My hours are flexible.”

  “Your father worked at the post office for thirty years, and he never once came home late for dinner.”

  A sigh popped out before I could squelch it.

  “So what's with the sigh?” my mother asked. “And the new pocketbook. When did you get the new pocketbook?”

  “I got the pocketbook today. I need to carry some things around with me for this job. I had to get a bigger bag.”

  “What things do you need? I thought you were doing filing.”

  “I didn't get that job. I got another job.”

  “What job did you get?”

  I poured ketchup on my meatloaf and barely restrained a second sigh. “Recovery agent,” I said. “I've got a job as a recovery agent.”

  “A recovery agent,” my mother repeated. “Frank, do you know what a recovery agent is?”

  “Yeah,” he said. “Bounty hunter.”

  My mother slapped her forehead and rolled her eyes. “Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie, what are you thinking of? This is no kind of work for a nice young lady.”

  “It's a legitimate, respectable job,” I said. “It's like being a cop or a private investigator.” Neither one of which I had ever considered to be especially respectable.

  “But you don't know anything about this.”

  “It's simple,” I said. “Vinnie gives me an FTA, and then I find him and escort him back to the police station.”

  “What's an FTA?” my mother wanted to know.

  “It's a person who's Failed To Appear.”

  “Maybe I could be a bounty hunter,” Grandma Mazur said. “I could use to earn some spending money. I could go after those FTAs with you.”

  “Jesus,” my father said.

  My mother ignored both of them. “You should learn to make slipcovers,” she said to me. “There's always a need for slipcovers.” She looked at my father. “Frank, don't you think she should learn to make slipcovers? Isn't that a good idea?”

  I felt the muscles tense along my spine and made an effort to relax. Buck up, I told myself. This was good practice for tomorrow morning when I intended to visit Morelli's mother.

  * * * * *

  IN THE ORDER OF THE BURG, Joseph Morelli's mother made my mother look like a second-rate housewife. My mother was no slouch, but by burg standards, Mrs. Morelli was a housewife of heroic proportions. God himself couldn't get windows cleaner, wash whiter, or make better ziti than Mrs. Morelli. She never missed mass, she sold Amway in her spare time, and she scared the beejeebers out of me with her piercing black eyes. I didn't think Mrs. Morelli was likely to snitch on her last born, but she was on my quiz list anyway. No stone unturned.

  Joe's father could have been bought for five bucks and a sixpack, but his father was dead.

  I'd opted for a professional image this morning, dressing in a tailored beige linen suit, complete with pantyhose and heels and tasteful pearl earrings. I parked at the curb, climbed the porch stairs, and knocked on the Morelli front door.

  “Well,” Momma Morelli said, standing behind the screen, staring out at me with a degree of censure usually reserved for atheists and slackers. “Look who's here on my porch, bright and early . . . little miss bounty hunter.” She boosted her chin up an additional inch. “I heard all about you and your new job, and I have nothing to say to you.”

  “I need to find Joe, Mrs. Morelli. He missed a court appearance.”

  “I'm sure he had good reason.”

  Yeah. Like he's guilty as hell. “I tell you what, I'll leave my card, just in case. I got them made yesterday.” I rooted through the big black bag, finding handcuffs, hair spray, flashlight, hairbrush—no cards. I tipped the bag to look inside, and my gun fell out onto the green indoor-outdoor carpeting.

  “A gun,” Mrs. Morelli said. “What is this world coming to? Does your mother know you're carrying a gun? I'm going to tell her. I'm going to call and tell her right now.”

  She sent me a look of utter disgust and slammed the front door shut.

  I was thirty years old, and Mrs. Morelli was going to tell my mother on me. Only in the burg. I retrieved my gun, dumped it back into my purse, and found my cards. I stuck one of the cards between the screen and the molding. Then I drove the short distance back to my parents' house and used their phone to call my cousin Francie, who knew everything about everyone.

  He's long gone, Francie had said. He's a smart guy and he's probably wearing a fake mustache by now. He was a cop. He has contacts. He knows how to get a new social security number and start over far away. Give it up, Francie had said. You'll never find him.

  Intuition and desperation told me otherwise, so I called Eddie Gazarra, who was a Trenton cop and had been one of my very best friends since the day I was born. Not only was he a good friend, but he was married to my cousin, Shirley the Whiner. Why Gazarra had married Shirley was beyond my comprehension, but they'd been married for eleven years so I suppose they had something going between them.

  I didn't bother with chitchat when I got Gazarra. I went right to the heart of the matter, telling him about my job with Vinnie and asking what he knew about the Morelli shooting.

  “I know it's nothing you want to get involved in,” Gazarra said. “You want to work for Vinnie? Fine. Get him to give you some other case.”

  “Too late. I'm doing this one.”

  “This one has a real bad odor.”

  “Everything in New Jersey has a bad odor. It's one of the few things a person can count on.”

  Gazarra lowered his voice. “When a cop gets charged with murder, it's serious shit. Everybody gets touchy. And this murder was especially ugly because the physical evidence was so strong against Morelli. He was apprehended at the scene with the gun still warm in his hand. He claimed Ziggy was armed, but there was no weapon found, no bullet discharged into the opposite wall or floor or ceiling, no powder residue on Ziggy's hand or shirt. The grand jury had no choice but to indict Morelli. And then if things aren't bad enough . . . Morelli goes Failure To Appear. This is a black eye to the department and fucking embarrassing. You mention Morelli in the halls and everybody suddenly remembers they've got something to do. Nobody's going to be happy about you sticking your nose in this. You go after Morelli and you're gonna be swinging on a broken branch, high off the gound, all alone.”

  “If I bring him in, I get $10,000.”

  “Buy lottery tickets. Your chances will be better.”

  “It's my understanding that Morelli went to see Carmen Sanchez, but that Sanchez wasn't there when he arrived.”

  “Not only wasn't she on the scene, but she's disappeared off the face of the earth.”

  “Still?”

  “Still. And don't think we haven't looked for her.”

  “What about the guy Morelli says was in the apartment with Ziggy. The mystery witness?”

  “Vanished.”

  I felt my nose wrinkle in disbelief. “Do you think this is odd?”

  “I think it's odder than odd.”

  “Maybe Morelli went bad.”

  I could feel Gazarra shrug over the phone line. “All I know is my cop intuition tells me something doesn't add up.”

  “You think Morelli'll join the Foreign Legion?”

  “I think he'll stick around and work to improve his odds on longevity . . . or die trying.”

  I was relieved to hear my opinion reinforced. “You have any suggestions?”

  “None you want to hear.”

  “Come on, Eddie. I need help.”

  Another sigh. “You're not going to find him hiding out with a relative or a friend. He's smarter than that. The only thing I can think
of is to look for Carmen Sanchez and the guy Morelli said was in the apartment with Ziggy. If I was Morelli, I'd want to get those two missing persons, either to prove my innocence, or to make sure they couldn't prove my guilt. I haven't a clue how you do this. We can't find them and chances are you can't find them either.”

  I thanked Gazarra and hung up. Looking for the witnesses sounded like a good idea. I didn't necessarily care that it was an impossible mission. What I cared about was that if I started running down leads on Carmen Sanchez, I might be following the same route as Morelli and maybe our paths would cross again.

  Where to begin? Carmen's apartment building. I could talk to her neighbors, maybe get a line on her friends and family. What else? Talk to the boxer, Benito Ramirez. If Ramirez and Ziggy were all that close, maybe Ramirez knew Carmen Sanchez. Maybe he even had some ideas about the missing witness.

  I took a can of soda from the refrigerator and a box of Fig Newtons from the pantry, deciding to talk to Ramirez first.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  3

  STARK STREET STARTED DOWN BY THE RIVER, just north of the statehouse, and ran in a northeasterly direction. Crammed with small inner-city businesses, bars, crack houses, and cheerless three-story row houses, the street stretched close to a mile. Most of the row houses had been converted to apartments or rooms to let. Few were air-conditioned. All were overcrowded. When it was hot, residents spilled from the row houses onto the stoops and street corners, looking for air and action. At ten-thirty in the morning, the street was still relatively quiet.

  I missed the gym first time around, rechecked the address from the page I'd torn out of my phone book, and doubled back, driving slowly, reading off street numbers. I caught the sign, Stark Street Gym, professionally lettered in black on a door window. Not much of an advertisement, but then I supposed they didn't need much. They weren't exactly in competition with Spa Lady. It took two additional blocks before I found a parking space.

  I locked the Nova, hung my big black bag over my shoulder, and set out. I'd put the fiasco with Mrs. Morelli behind me, and felt pretty damn slick in my suit and heels, toting my bounty hunter hardware. Embarrassing as it was to admit, I was beginning to enjoy the role, thinking there was nothing like packing a pair of cuffs to put some spring into a woman's step.

  The gym sat in the middle of its block, over A & K Auto Body. The bay doors to the auto body were open, and catcalls and kissy sounds drifted out to me when I crossed the cement apron. My New Jersey heritage weighed heavy, demanding I respond with a few demeaning comments of my own, but discretion being the better part of valor, I kept my mouth shut and hurried on by.

  Across the street, a shadowy figure pulled back from a filthy third-floor window, the movement catching my attention. Someone had been watching me. Not surprising. I'd roared down the street not once, but twice. My muffler had fallen off first thing this morning, and my engine noise had rumbled off the Stark Street brick storefronts. This wasn't what you'd call an undercover operation.

  The door to the gym opened onto a small foyer with steps leading up. The stairwell walls were institutional green, covered with spray-painted graffiti and twenty years' worth of hand smudges. The smell was bad, ripe with urine steaming on the lower steps, bonding with the musty aroma of stale male sweat and body odor. Upstairs, the warehouse-style second floor was no better.

  A handful of men were working the free weights. The ring was empty. No one was at the bags. I figured everybody must be out jumping rope or stealing cars. It was the last flip thought I entertained. Activity faltered when I entered, and if I'd been uncomfortable on the street, it hardly counted at all to what I felt here. I'd expected a champion to be surrounded by an aura of professionalism. I hadn't anticipated the atmosphere to be charged with hostility and suspicion. I was clearly a street-ignorant white woman invading a black man's gym, and if the silent rebuke had been any more forceful I'd have been hurled backward, down the stairs like a victim of a poltergeist.

  I took a wide stance (more to keep myself from falling over in fright than to impress the boys) and hitched up my shoulder bag. “I'm looking for Benito Ramirez.”

  A hulking mountain of muscle rose from a workout bench. “I'm Ramirez.”

  He was over 6' tall. His voice was silky, his lips curved into a dreamy smile. The overall effect was eerie, the voice and the smile at odds to the stealthy, calculating eyes.

  I crossed the room and extended my hand. “Stephanie Plum.”

  “Benito Ramirez.”

  His grasp was too gentle, too lingering. More of a caress than a handshake and unpleasantly sensual. I stared into his hooded, close-set eyes and wondered about prizefighters. Until this moment, I'd assumed boxing was a sport of skill and aggression, directed toward winning the match, not necessarily toward maiming the opponent. Ramirez looked like he'd enjoy the kill. There was something about the density of his eyes, black holes where everything gets sucked in and nothing comes out, that suggested a hiding place for evil. And the smile, a little goofy, a little sick in its sweetness, hinting of insanity. I wondered if this was a contrived image, designed to spook opponents before the bell. Contrived or not, it was creepy as hell.

  I made an attempt to free my hand, and his grip tightened.

  “So, Stephanie Plum,” he said in his velvet voice. “What can I do for you?”

  As a buyer for E.E. Martin, I'd dealt with my share of slime. I'd learned how to assert myself and still be pleasant and professional. My face and voice told Ramirez I was friendly. My words were more to the point. “You can release my hand, so I can give you my card,” I said.

  His smile stayed fixed in place, more amiable and inquisitive now than crazy. I gave him my card and watched him read it.

  “Fugitive apprehension agent,” he said, obviously amused. “That's a big title for a little girl.”

  I'd never thought of myself as little until I'd stood along-side Ramirez. I'm 5' 7“ and rawboned from the Mazur's good Hungarian peasant stock. Perfectly constructed for laboring in the paprika fields, pulling plows, and dropping babies out like bird's eggs. I ran and periodically starved to keep the fat off, but I still weighed in at 130. Not heavy, but not dainty, either. ”I'm looking for Joe Morelli. Have you seen him?"

  Ramirez shook his head. “I don't know Joe Morelli. I only know he shot Ziggy.” He looked around at the rest of the men. “Any of you seen that guy Morelli?”

  No one responded.

  “I've been told there was a witness to the shooting and that the witness has disappeared,” I said. “Do you have any idea who that witness might be?”

  Again, no response.

  I pushed on. “How about Carmen Sanchez? Do you know Carmen? Did Ziggy ever speak of her?”

  “You ask a lot of questions,” Ramirez said.

  We were standing close to the big old-fashioned windows in the front of the room, and for no reason other than instinct, I shifted my attention to the building across the street. Again, the shadowy figure in the same third-floor window. A man, I thought. I couldn't tell if he was black or white. Not that it mattered.

  Ramirez stroked my jacket sleeve. “Would you like a Coke? We got a Coke machine here. I could buy you a soda.”

  “Thanks for the offer, but I have a busy morning, and I really should be moving along. If you spot Morelli, I'd appreciate a call.”

  “Most girls think it's a treat for the champ to buy them a soda.”

  Not this girl, I thought. This girl thought the champ was possibly missing a few marbles. And this girl didn't like the climate of the gym.

  “I'd really love to stay and have a soda,” I said, “but I have an early lunch date.” With a box of Fig Newtons.

  “It's not good to go rushing around. You should stay and relax a little. Your date won't mind.”

  I shifted my weight, trying to inch away while I enhanced the lie. “Actually, it's a business luncheon with Sergeant Gazarra.”

  “I don't believe you,”
Ramirez said. His smile had turned tight, and the civility had slipped from his voice. “I think you're lying about lunch.”

  I felt tendrils of panic curl into my stomach, and I cautioned myself not to overreact. Ramirez was playing with me. Showing off in front of his friends. Probably stung because I hadn't succumbed to his charms. Now he had to save face.

  I made a display of looking at my watch. “Sorry you feel that way, but I'm supposed to meet Gazarra in ten minutes. He's not going to be pleased if I'm late.”

  I took a step backward, and Ramirez grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, his fingers digging in with enough force to make me hunch involuntarily.

 
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