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One for the money, p.5
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       One for the Money, p.5

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “You're not going anywhere, Stephanie Plum,” he whispered. “The champ isn't done with you yet.”

  The silence in the gym was oppressive. No one moved. No one voiced an objection. I looked at each of the men and received only blank stares back. No one's going to help me, I thought, feeling the first licks of real fear.

  I lowered my voice to match Ramirez's soft pitch. “I came here as a member of the law enforcement community. I came looking for information to help me with the recovery of Joe Morelli, and I gave you no reason to misinterpret my intentions. I'm conducting myself as a professional, and I expect you to respect that.”

  Ramirez dragged me closer. “Something you got to understand about the champ,” he said. “First off, you don't tell the champ about respect. And second, you got to know the champ always gets what he wants.” He gave me a shake. “You know what the champ wants right now? The champ wants you to be nice to him, baby. Real nice. Gotta make up for refusing him. Show him some respect.” His gaze shifted to my breasts. “Maybe show him some fear. You afraid of me, bitch?”

  Any woman with an IQ over twelve would be afraid of Benito Ramirez.

  He giggled and all the little hairs on my arm stood straight out.

  “You're scared now,” he said in his whispery voice. “I can smell it. Pussy fear. Bet it making your pants wet. Maybe I should put my hand in your pants and find out.”

  I had a gun in my bag, and I'd use it if I had to, but not until all else had failed. Ten minutes of instruction hadn't made me a crack shot. That's okay, I told myself. I didn't want to kill anyone. I just wanted to back everyone up enough to get the hell out. I slid my hand over the leather bag until I felt the gun, hard and unyielding under my palm.

  Reach in, get the gun, I thought. Take aim at Ramirez and look serious. Could I pull the trigger? I honestly didn't know. I had my doubts. I hoped I wouldn't have to take it that far.

  “Let go of my neck,” I said. “This is the last time I'm telling you.”

  “Nobody tell the champ what to do,” he roared, his composure gone, his face twisted and ugly. For a split second the door swung open, and I caught a glimpse of the inner man—a glimpse of insanity, and of hellfires burning and hatred so strong it whipped my breath away.

  He grabbed the front of my shirt, and over my scream, I heard the fabric tear.

  In times of crisis, when a person reacts on instinct, that person does whatever is most comfortable. I did what any other American woman would do in a similar circumstance. I roundhoused Ramirez square on the side of his head with my purse. Between the gun and the beeper and the other assorted paraphernalia, the bag must have weighed at least ten pounds.

  Ramirez staggered sideways, and I bolted for the stairs. I didn't get five feet before he jerked me back by my hair and flung me across the room like a rag doll. I lost footing and went facedown to the floor, my hands hitting first, skidding over unvarnished wood, my body following, the impact knocking the air from my lungs.

  Ramirez straddled me, his butt on my back, his hand fisting in my hair, pulling savagely. I grabbed at my bag, but I was unable to get to the gun.

  I heard the crack of a high-powered weapon, and the front windows shattered. More shots. Someone was emptying a clip into the gym. Men were running and shouting, looking for cover. Ramirez was among them. I was moving, too, crab style across the floor, my legs not able to support me. I reached the stairs, stood, and lunged for the railing. I missed the second step, too panicked to coordinate my movements, and half slid the rest of the way down to the cracked linoleum landing at street level. I dragged myself to my feet and staggered outside into the heat and blinding sunlight. My stockings were torn and my knees were bleeding. I was hanging onto the door handle, laboring to breathe when a hand clamped onto my upper arm. I jumped and yelped. It was Joe Morelli.

  “For crissake,” he said, yanking me forward. “Don't just stand here. Haul ass!”

  I wasn't sure Ramirez cared enough about me to come charging down the stairs, but it seemed prudent not to hang around and find out, so I clattered after Morelli with my chest burning from oxygen deprivation and my skirt hiked up to my crotch. Kathleen Turner would have made it look good on the big screen. I was something less than glamorous. My nose was running, and I think I was drooling. I was grunting in pain and sniveling from fear, making ugly animal sounds and inventive promises to God.

  We turned at the corner, cut through an alley on the next block, and ran down a narrow one-lane road carved out between backyards. The road was lined with broken-down single-car wooden garages and overflowing bashed-in garbage cans.

  Sirens sounded two blocks away. No doubt a couple of cruisers and an ambulance responding to the shooting. Hindsight told me I should have stayed close to the gym and conned the cops into helping me track down Morelli. Something to remember next time I'm almost raped and brutalized.

  Morelli stopped abruptly and jerked me into an empty garage. The double doors were cocked open enough to slide through, not enough for a passerby to see inside. The floor was packed dirt, and the air was close, smelling metallic. I was struck by the irony of it. Here I was, after all these years, once again in a garage with Morelli. I could see the anger in his face, hardening his eyes, pinching at the corners of his mouth. He grabbed me by the front of my suit jacket and pinned me against the crude wooden wall. The impact knocked dust from the rafters and made my teeth clack together.

  His voice was tight with barely controlled fury. “What the hell did you think you were doing walking into the gym like that?”

  He punctuated the end of the question with another body slam, rattling more filth onto the two of us.

  “Answer me!” he ordered.

  The pain was all mental. I'd been stupid. And now, to add insult to injury, I was getting bullied by Morelli. It was almost as humiliating as getting rescued by him. “I was looking for you.”

  “Well congratulations, you found me. You also blew my cover, and I'm not happy about it.”

  “You were the shadow in the third-floor window, watching the gym from across the street.”

  Morelli didn't say anything. In the dark garage his eyes were dilated solid black.

  I mentally cracked my knuckles. “And, now I guess there's only one thing left to do.”

  “I can hardly wait to hear this.”

  I shoved my hand into my shoulder bag, pulled out my revolver, and jabbed Morelli in the chest with it. “You're under arrest.”

  His eyes opened wide in astonishment. “You have a gun! Why didn't you use it on Ramirez? Jesus, you hit him with your pocketbook like some sissy girl. Why the hell didn't you use your damn gun?”

  I felt color flooding into my cheeks. What could I say? The truth was worse than embarrassing. It was counter-productive. Admitting to Morelli that I'd been more afraid of my gun than I'd been of Ramirez wasn't going to do much to further my credibility as an apprehension agent.

  It didn't take Morelli long to put it together. He made a disgusted sound, pushed the barrel aside and took the gun from me. “If you aren't willing to use it, you shouldn't be carrying it. You have a permit to carry a concealed weapon?”

  “Yes.” And I was at least ten percent convinced it was legal.

  “Where'd you get your permit?”

  “Ranger got it for me.”

  “Ranger Mañoso? Christ, he probably made it in his cellar.” He shook out the bullets and gave the gun back to me. “Find a new job. And stay away from Ramirez. He's nuts. He's been charged with rape on three separate occasions and been acquitted each time because the victim always disappears.”

  “I didn't know . . .”

  “There's a lot you don't know.”

  His attitude was beginning to piss me off. I was only too well aware that I had a lot to learn about apprehension. I didn't need Morelli's sarcastic superiority. “So what's your point.”

  “Get off my case. You want a career in law enforcement? Fine. Go for it. Just don't learn on me. I hav
e enough problems without worrying about saving your ass.”

  “No one asked you to save my ass. I would have saved my own ass if you hadn't interfered.”

  “Honey, you couldn't find your ass with both hands.”

  My palms were skinned and burned like the devil. My scalp was sore. My knees throbbed. I wanted to go back to my apartment and stand in a hot shower for five or six hours until I felt clean and strong. I wanted to get away from Morelli and regroup. “I'm going home.”

  “Good idea,” he said. “Where's your car?”

  “Stark Street and Tyler.”

  He flattened himself at the side of the door and took a quick look out. “It's okay.”

  My knees had stiffened up, and the blood had dried and caked on what was left of my pantyhose. Limping seemed like an indulgent weakness not to be witnessed by the likes of Morelli, so I forged ahead, thinking ouch, ouch, ouch but not saying a word. When we got to the corner I realized he was walking me all the way to Stark. “I don't need an escort,” I said. “I'll be fine.”

  He had his hand at my elbow, steering me forward. “Don't flatter yourself. I'm not nearly so concerned about your welfare as I am about getting you the hell out of my life. I want to make sure you leave. I want to see your tailpipe fading off into the sunset.”

  Good luck, I thought. My tailpipe was somewhere on Route 1, along with my muffler.

  We reached Stark, and I faltered at the sight of my car. It had been parked on the street for less than an hour, and in that time it had been spray-painted from one end to the other. Mostly Day-Glo pink and green, and the predominant word on both sides was “pussy.” I checked the plate and looked in the back seat for the box of Fig Newtons. Yep, this was my car.

  One more indignity in a day filled with indignities. Did I care. Not a whole lot. I was numb. I was becoming immune to indignity. I searched through my bag for my keys, found them, and plugged them into the door.

  Morelli rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets, a grin beginning to creep to his lips. “Most people are content with pinstriping and a vanity plate.”

  “Eat dirt and die.”

  Morelli tipped his head back and laughed out loud. His laughter was deep and rich and infectious, and if I hadn't been so distraught, I'd have laughed along with him. As it was, I jerked the car door open and rammed myself behind the wheel. I turned the key in the ignition, gave the dash a good hard smack, and left him choking in a cloud of exhaust and a blast of noise that had the potential to liquefy his insides.

  * * * * *

  OFFICIALLY, I LIVED AT THE EASTERN BOUNDARY of the city of Trenton, but in actuality my neighborhood felt more like Hamilton Township than Trenton proper. My apartment building was an ugly dark red brick cube built before central air and thermal pane windows. Eighteen apartments in all, evenly distributed over three floors. By modern-day standards it wasn't a terrific apartment. It didn't come with a pool membership or have tennis courts attached. The elevator was unreliable. The bathroom was vintage Partridge family with mustard yellow amenities and French Provincial trim on the vanity. The kitchen appliances were a notch below generic.

  The good part about the apartment was that it had been built with sturdy stuff. Sound didn't carry from apartment to apartment. The rooms were large and sunny. Ceilings were high. I lived on the second floor, and my windows overlooked the small private parking lot. The building predated the balcony boom, but I was lucky enough to have an old-fashioned black metal fire escape skirt my bedroom window. Perfect for drying pantyhose, quarantining houseplants with aphids, and just big enough for sitting out on sultry summer nights.

  Most important of all, the ugly brick building wasn't part of a sprawling complex of other ugly brick buildings. It sat all by itself on a busy street of small businesses, and it bordered a neighborhood of modest frame houses. Very much like living in the burg . . . but better. My mother had a hard time stretching the umbilical this far, and the bakery was only one block away.

  I parked in the lot and slunk into the back entrance. Since Morelli wasn't around, I didn't have to be brave, so I bitched and complained and limped all the way to my apartment. I showered, did the first-aid thing, and dressed in T-shirt and shorts. My knees were missing the top layer of skin and were bruised, already turning shades of magenta and midnight blue. My elbows were in pretty much the same condition. I felt like a kid who'd fallen off her bike. I could hear myself singing out “I can do it; I can do it,” and then next thing I know, I'm lying on the ground, looking the fool, with two scraped knees.

  I flopped onto my bed, spread-eagle on my back. This was my thinking position when things appeared to be futile. It had obvious advantages: I could nap while I waited for something brilliant to pop into my mind. I lay there for what seemed like a long time. Nothing brilliant had popped into my mind, and I was too agitated to sleep.

  I couldn't stop reliving my experience with Ramirez. I'd never before been attacked by a man. Never even come close. The afternoon's assault had been a degrading, frightening experience, and now that the dust had settled, and calmer emotions prevailed, I felt violated and vulnerable.

  I considered filing a report with the police, but immediately shelved it. Whining to Big Brother wasn't going to win any points for me as a rough, tough bounty hunter. I couldn't see Ranger instituting an assault charge.

  I'd been lucky, I told myself. I'd gotten away with superficial injuries. Thanks to Morelli.

  The latter admission dragged a groan from me. Being rescued by Morelli had been damned embarrassing. And grossly unjust. All things considered, I didn't think I was doing all that badly. I'd been on the case for less than forty-eight hours, and I'd found my man twice. True, I hadn't been able to bring him in, but I was in a learning process. No one expected a first-year engineering student to build the perfect bridge. I figured I deserved to be cut the same kind of slack.

  I doubted the gun would ever be of any use to me. I couldn't imagine myself shooting Morelli. Possibly in the foot. But what were my chances of hitting a small moving target? Not good at all. Clearly I needed a less lethal way of subduing my quarry. Maybe a defense spray would be more my style. Tomorrow morning I'd go back to Sunny's Gun Shop and add to my bag of dirty tricks.

  My clock radio blinked 5:50 P.M. I looked at it dully, not immediately responding to the significance of the time, then horror ripped through me. My mother was expecting me for dinner again!

  I sprang out of bed and raced to the phone. The phone was dead. I hadn't paid my bill. I grabbed the car keys from the kitchen counter and hurtled out the door.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  4

  MY MOTHER WAS STANDING on the porch steps when I parked at the curb. She was waving her arms and shouting. I couldn't hear her over the roar of the engine, but I could read her lips. “SHUT IT OFF!” she was yelling. “SHUT IT OFF!”

  “Sorry,” I yelled back. “Broken muffler.”

  “You've got to do something. I could hear you coming four blocks away. You'll give old Mrs. Ciak heart palpitations.” She squinted at the car. “Did you have it decorated?”

  “It happened on Stark Street. Vandals.” I pushed her into the hallway before she could read the words.

  “Wow, nice knees,” Grandma Mazur said, bending down to take a closer look at my ooze. “I was watching some TV show last week, think it was Oprah, and they had a bunch of women on with knees like that. Said it was rug burn. Never figured out what that meant.”

  “Christ,” my father said from behind his paper. He didn't need to say more. We all understood his plight.

  “It's not rug burn,” I told Grandma Mazur. “I fell on my roller blades.” I wasn't worried about the lie. I had a long history of calamitous mishaps.

  I glanced at the dining room table. It was set with the good lace tablecloth. Company. I counted the plates. Five. I rolled my eyes heavenward. “Ma, you didn't.”

  “I didn't what?”

  The doorbell rang, and
my worst fears were confirmed.

  “It's company. It's no big deal,” my mother said, going to the door. “I guess I can invite company into my own house if I want to.”

  “It's Bernie Kuntz,” I said. “I can see him through the hall window.”

  My mother stopped, hands on hips. “So, what's wrong with Bernie Kuntz?”

  “To begin with . . . he's a man.”

  “Okay, you had a bad experience. That don't mean you should give up. Look at your sister Valerie. She's happily married for twelve years. She has two beautiful girls.”

  “That's it. I'm leaving. I'm going out the back door.”

  “Pineapple upside-down cake,” my mother said. “You'll miss dessert if you leave now. And don't think I'll save some for you.”

 
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