Hard eight, p.4
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       Hard Eight, p.4

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich

  “Boy, this is fun,” he said. “What are we going to eat? Fried chicken? Fish sandwich? Cheeseburger?”

  Ten minutes later, we pulled out of the McDonald's drive-thru, loaded with burgers and shakes and fries.

  “Okay, here's what I think,” Kloughn said. “I think Evelyn isn't far away. She's nice but she's a mouse, right? I mean, where's she gonna go? How do we know she's not at her grandma's?”

  “Her grandmother is the one who hired me! She's going to lose her house.”

  “Oh yeah. I forgot.”

  Lula looked at him in the rearview mirror. “What'd you do, go to one of them offshore law schools?”

  “Very funny.” He did another tie-smoothing thing. “It was a correspondence course.”

  “Is that legal?”

  “Sure, you take tests and everything.”

  I pulled into the Laundromat parking lot and stopped. “Here we are, back from lunch,” I said.

  “Already? But it's too short. I didn't even finish my fries,” he said. “And after that I have a pie to eat.”

  “Sorry. We have work to do.”

  “Yeah? What kind of work? Are you going out after someone dangerous? I bet I could help.”

  “Don't you have lawyer things to do?”

  “It's my lunch hour.”

  “You wouldn't want to tag along,” I said. “We're not doing anything interesting. I was going back to Evelyn's house and maybe talk to some of her neighbors.”

  “I'm good at talking to people,” he said. “That was one of my best courses . . . talking to people.”

  “Don't seem right to kick him out before he eats his pie,” Lula said. She looked over the seatback at him. “You gonna eat that whole thing?”

  “Alright, he can stay,” I said. “But no talking to people. He has to stay in the car.”

  “Like I'm the wheel guy, right?” he said. “In case you have to make a fast getaway.”

  “No. There will be no fast getaways. And you're not the wheel guy. You don't drive. I drive.”

  “Sure. I know that,” he said.

  I rolled out of the lot, found Hamilton Avenue, and took it to the Burg, left-turning at St. Francis Hospital. I wound my way through the maze of streets and came to an idle in front of Evelyn's house. The neighborhood was quiet at midday. No kids on bikes. No porch sitters. No traffic to speak of.

  I wanted to talk to Evelyn's neighbors, but I didn't want to do it with Lula and Kloughn tagging along. Lula scared the hell out of people. And Kloughn made us look like religious missionaries. I parked the car at the curb, Lula and I got out, and I pocketed the key. “Let's just take a look around,” I said to Lula.

  She cut her eyes to Kloughn, sitting in the backseat. “You think we should crack a window for him? Isn't there a law about that sort of thing?”

  “I think the law applies to dogs.”

  “Seems like he fits in there, somehow,” Lula said. “Actually, he's kind of cute, in a white bread kind of way.”

  I didn't want to go back to the car and open the door. I was afraid Kloughn would bound out. “He'll be okay,” I said. “We won't be that long.”

  We walked to the porch, and I rang the bell. No answer. Still couldn't see in the front window.

  Lula put her ear to the door. “I don't hear anything going on in there,” she said.

  We walked around the house and looked in the kitchen window. The same two cereal bowls and glasses were on the counter next to the sink.

  “We need to look around inside,” Lula said. “I bet the house is lousy with clues.”

  “No one has a key.”

  Lula tried the window. “Locked.” She gave the door the once-over. “Of course, we're bounty hunters and if we think there's some bad guy in there we have the right to bust the door apart.”

  I've been known to bend the law a little from time to time, but this was a multiple fracture. “I don't want to ruin Evelyn's door,” I said.

  I saw Lula eye the window.

  “And I don't want to break her window. We're not acting as bond enforcement here, and we have no ground for forced entry.”

  “Yeah, but if the window broke by accident it would be neighborly of us to investigate it. Like, maybe we could fix it from the inside.” Lula swung her big black leather shoulder bag in an arc and smashed the window. “Oops,” she said.

  I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the door. I took a deep breath and told myself to stay calm. Sure, I'd like to yell at Lula and maybe choke her, but what would that accomplish? “You're going to pay to have that window fixed,” I told her.

  “The hell I am. This here's a rental. They got insurance on stuff like this.” She knocked out a few remaining pieces of glass, stuck her arm through the open window, and unlocked the door.

  I pulled some disposable rubber gloves out of my bag and we snapped them on. No point leaving prints all over since this was sort of an illegal entry. With the kind of luck I had, someone would come in and burgle the place and the police would find my prints.

  Lula and I slipped into the kitchen and closed the door behind us. It was a small kitchen, and with Lula next to me we were wall-to-wall people.

  “Maybe you should do lookout in the front room,” I said. “Make sure no one walks in on us.”

  “Lookout is my middle name,” Lula said. “No one will get by me.”

  I started with the countertop, going through the usual kitchen clutter. There were no messages written on the pad by the phone. I rifled through a pile of junk mail. Aside from some nice towels on sale in the Martha Stewart line, there wasn't anything of interest. A drawing of a house done in red and green crayon was taped to the refrigerator. Annie's, I thought. The dishes were neatly stacked in over-the-counter cupboards. Glasses were spotless and lined by threes on the shelves. The refrigerator was filled with condiments but empty of food that might spoil. No milk or orange juice. No fresh vegetables or fruit.

  I drew some conclusions from the kitchen. Evelyn's cupboard was better stocked than mine. She left quickly but still took the time to get rid of the milk. If she was a drunk or on drugs or loony tunes, she was a responsible drunk or druggie or loony.

  I didn't find anything of help in the kitchen, so I moved on to the dining room and living room. I opened drawers and checked under cushions.

  “You know where I'd go if I had to hide out?” Lula said. “I'd go to Disney World. Have you ever been to Disney World? I'd especially go there if I had a problem, because everybody's happy at Disney World.”

  “I've been to Disney World seven times,” Kloughn said.

  Lula and I both jumped at his voice.

  “Hey,” Lula said, “you're supposed to be in the car.”

  “I got tired of waiting.”

  I gave Lula the evil eye.

  “I was watching,” Lula said. “I don't know how he got past me.” She turned to Kloughn. “How'd you get in here?”

  “The back door was open. And the window was broken. You didn't break the window, did you? You could get into big trouble for something like that. That's breaking and entering.”

  “We found the window like that,” Lula said. “That's how come we're wearing gloves. We don't want to screw up the evidence if anything's been stolen.”

  “Good thinking,” Kloughn said, his eyes getting bright, his voice up an octave. “Do you really think stuff has been stolen? You think anybody got roughed up?”

  Lula looked at him like she'd never seen anybody that dumb before.

  “I'm checking upstairs,” I said. “You two stay down here and don't touch anything.”

  “What are you looking for upstairs?” Kloughn wanted to know, following me up the stairs. “I bet you're looking for clues that'll lead you to Evelyn and Annie. You know where I'd look? I'd look—”

  I whirled around, almost knocking him off his feet. “Down,” I said, pointing stiff-armed, shouting at him nose to nose. “Go sit on the couch and don't get up until I tell you.”

bsp; “Yeesh,” he said. “You don't have to yell at me. Just tell me, okay? Boy, it must be one of those days for you, hunh?”

  I narrowed my eyes. “One of what days?”

  “You know.”

  “It is not one of those days,” I said.

  “Yeah, she's like this on a good day,” Lula said. “You don't want to know what she's like on one of those days.”

  I left Lula and Kloughn downstairs, and I poked through the bedrooms on my own.

  There were still clothes hanging in the closets and folded in dresser drawers. Evelyn must have only taken essentials. Either her disappearance was temporary or else she was in a rush to leave. Maybe both.

  As far as I could tell there was no sign of Steven. Evelyn had sanitized the house of him. There were no leftover men's toiletries in the bathroom, no forgotten men's belts lurking in the closet, no family photo in a silver frame. I'd done a similar house cleaning when I'd divorced Dickie. Still, for months after our breakup I'd get bushwhacked by an overlooked item . . . a man's sock that had dropped behind the washing machine, a set of car keys that had gotten kicked under the couch and been given up for lost.

  The medicine chest contained the usual . . . a bottle of Tylenol, a bottle of kids' cough syrup, dental floss, nail scissors, mouthwash, box of Band-Aids, talcum powder. No uppers or downers. No hallucinogens. No happy pills. Also, conspicuously missing was anything alcoholic. No wine or gin stashed in kitchen cupboards. No beer in the fridge. Could be Carol was mistaken about the booze and pills. Or could be Evelyn took it all with her.

  Kloughn popped his head around the bathroom doorjamb. “You don't mind if I look, too, do you?”

  “Yes! I mind. I told you to stay on the couch. And what's Lula doing? She was supposed to keep her eye on you.”

  “Lula's doing watch out. That doesn't take two people, so I decided to help you search. Did you already look in Annie's room? I just looked in there, and I didn't find any clues, but her drawings were real scary. Did you look at her drawings? I'm telling you, that's a messed-up kid. It's television. All that violence.”

  “The only picture I saw was of a red-and-green house.”

  “Did the red look like blood?”

  “No. It looked like windows.”

  “Uh-oh,” Lula said from the front room.

  Damn. I hate uh-oh. “What?” I yelled down at her.

  “There's a car pulled up behind your CR-V.”

  I peeked out Evelyn's bedroom window. It was a black Lincoln Towncar. Two guys got out and started walking toward Evelyn's front door. I grabbed Kloughn's hand and pulled him down the stairs after me. Don't panic, I thought. The door's locked. And they can't see in. I made a sign for everyone to be quiet, and we all stood still as statues, barely breathing, while one of the men rapped on the door.

  “Nobody home,” he said.

  I carefully exhaled. They'd leave now, right? Wrong. There was the sound of a key being inserted in the lock. The lock clicked, and the door swung open.

  Lula and Kloughn lined up behind me. The two men stood their ground on the front porch.

  “Yes?” I asked, trying to look like I belonged to the house.

  The men were late forties, early fifties. Medium height. Built solid. Dressed in business suits. Both Caucasian. Didn't look especially happy to see the Three Stooges in Evelyn's house.

  “We're looking for Evelyn,” one of the men said.

  “Not here,” I told him. “And you would be?”

  “Eddie Abruzzi. And this is my associate, Melvin Darrow.”

  Stephanie Plum 8 - Hard Eight


  OH BOY. EDDIE Abruzzi. Talk about a day going into the toilet.

  “It's been brought to my attention that Evelyn moved out,” Abruzzi said. “You wouldn't happen to know where she is, would you?”

  “No,” I said. “But as you can see, she hasn't moved out.”

  Abruzzi looked around. “Her furniture's here. That doesn't mean she hasn't moved out.”

  “Well, technically . . .” Kloughn said.

  Abruzzi squinted at Kloughn. “Who are you?”

  “I'm Albert Kloughn. I'm Evelyn's lawyer.”

  This got a smile out of Abruzzi. “Evelyn hired a clown for a lawyer. Perfect.”

  “K-1-o-u-g-h-n,” Albert Kloughn said.

  “And I'm Stephanie Plum,” I said.

  “I know who you are,” Abruzzi said. His voice was eerily quiet, and his pupils were shrunk to the size of pinpricks. “You killed Benito Ramirez.”

  Benito Ramirez was a heavyweight boxer who tried to kill me on several occasions and finally was shot on my fire escape, poised to break through my window. He was criminally insane and flat-out evil, taking pleasure and finding strength through other people's pain.

  “I owned Ramirez,” Abruzzi said. “I had a lot of time and money invested in him. And I understood him. We enjoyed many of the same pursuits.”

  “I didn't kill him,” I said. “You know that, don't you?”

  “You didn't pull the trigger . . . but you killed him all the same.” He turned his attention to Lula. “I know who you are, too. You're one of Benito's whores. How did it feel to spend time with Benito? Did you enjoy it? Did you feel privileged? Did you learn anything?”

  “I don't feel so good,” Lula said. And she fainted dead away, crashing into Kloughn, taking him down with her.

  Lula had been brutalized by Ramirez. He'd tortured her and left her for dead. But Lula hadn't died. Turns out, it's not so easy to kill Lula.

  Unlike Kloughn, who looked like he might be ready to cash in his chips any minute. Kloughn was squashed under Lula with only his feet showing, doing a good imitation of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy's house fell on her. He made a sound that was half squeak, half death rattle. “Help,” he whispered. “I can't breathe.”

  Darrow grabbed one of Lula's legs and I grabbed an arm, and we rolled Lula off Kloughn.

  Kloughn lay there for a moment, eyes glazed, breath shallow. “Does anything look broken?” he asked. “Did I mess myself?”

  “What are you doing here?” Abruzzi asked. “And how did you get in?”

  “We came to visit Evelyn,” I said. “The back door was open.”

  “You and your fat whore friend always wear rubber gloves?”

  Lula opened an eye. “Who you calling fat?” She opened the other eye. “What happened? What am I doing on the floor?”

  “You fainted,” I told her.

  “That's a lie,” she said, getting to her feet. “I don't faint. I never fainted once in my life.” She looked over at Kloughn, who was still on his back. “What's with him?”

  “You landed on him.”

  “Squashed me like a bug,” Kloughn said, struggling to stand. “I'm lucky I'm alive.”

  Abruzzi considered us all for a moment. “This is my property,” he said. “Don't break in again. I don't care if you're friends of the family or lawyers, or murdering bitches. Got that?”

  I pressed my lips tight together and said nothing.

  Lula shifted her weight foot to foot. “Hunh,” she said.

  And Kloughn vigorously nodded his head. “Yessir,” he said, “we understand. No problemo. We only came in this time on account of—”

  Lula gave him a kick in the back of his calf.

  “Yow!” Kloughn said, bending at the waist, grabbing his leg.

  “Get out of this house,” Abruzzi said to me. “And don't return.”

  “I've been employed by Evelyn's family to look after her interests. That includes stopping by here from time to time.”

  “You're not listening,” Abruzzi said. “I'm telling you to stay out. Stay out of this house and stay out of Evelyn's affairs.”

  Bells and whistles were going off in my head. Why did Abruzzi care about Evelyn and her house? He was her landlord. My understanding of his business was that this wasn't even an important piece of real estate to him.

  “And if I don't?”

I'll make your life very unpleasant. I know how to make women uncomfortable. Benito and I had that in common. We knew how to make women pay attention. Tell me,” Abruzzi said, “what were Benito's last moments like? Was he in pain? Was he afraid? Did he know he was going to die?”

  “I don't know,” I said. “He was on the other side of the glass. I don't know what he was feeling.” Aside from insane rage.

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